An Analysis of Taiwan’s Coronavirus Response

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Kin Yang

This building houses the Control Yuan, a legislative branch of the Taiwanese government that acts as an investigatory agency that monitors the other branches of government. During the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the Control Yuan are important in safeguarding public health, because they closely inspect elements of disease prevention methods and policies.

As countries around the world continue to fight the Coronavirus pandemic, international agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) have been drawn to the forefront in the battle against the virus. For the WHO, this means upholding their main objective which is the “attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” as stated within their founding constitution. Following this objective, the ideal method for preventing public health emergencies such as the Coronavirus pandemic would be to have federal governments share timely and accurate information about virus developments in their respective countries with the WHO.

In return, the WHO would give advice on strategic planning operations and support for public-health resources. However, with 194 member states, this interconnected system is not without its flaws. In light of the current pandemic, politicians and medical experts, specifically, have criticized the WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for being irresponsible and slow in declaring COVID-19 as a pandemic. Some critics also point out that Tedros, along with other WHO officials, did not do enough to investigate the first identified COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. Furthermore, some nations are not represented in the WHO’s World Health Assembly, such as Taiwan. Despite its globally recognized coronavirus response, the sensitive political status of Taiwan has continuously been met with pushback from China. These factors have led to a point of contention between the WHO, China, Taiwan, and the United States.

Taiwan stands out among the few countries that have successfully kept their COVID-19 cases low, dropping to zero new confirmed cases as of May 12, 2020, and approximately 443 total cases overall according to Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center. For many health experts, this number is surprisingly low, given Taiwan’s close proximity to China, and in comparison to neighboring countries such as Australia, South Korea, and Japan. Keeping in mind varying population sizes, these countries have reported 7,249, 11,668, and 17,064 overall cases respectively as of June 5, 2020 according to the WHO. The methods that Taiwan has used to contain COVID-19 really provide valuable insight into how other countries can combat the current pandemic as well as future ones. 

For the Taiwanese government, the initial warning signs of COVID-19 demonstrated by the Wuhan outbreak in late December 2019 drew parallels to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. Learning from past experience, Taiwan took immediate action in notifying the WHO about potential “human to human” transmission regarding COVID-19, and they began monitoring passengers from Wuhan coming into the country through a series of screened tests.

By late January 2020, the Central Epidemic Command Center was formed by the government to not only establish transparency with the people, but also to organize policies and measures aimed at curbing COVID-19 transmissions. During this time, a list of more than 124 action items was produced and implemented by Taiwanese officials to dictate policies such as travel bans, mask rationing, social distancing, and home quarantine orders. These actions helped to prevent mistakes that would later be seen in countries such as the United States. For instance, banning mask exports while increasing domestic mask production and capping mask prices reduced price gouging and shortages. Additionally, Taiwan’s modern health infrastructure driven by affordable healthcare and intertwined with data analysis, helped ensure widespread testing and mobile phone tracking (to enforce self-quarantine among traveler arrivals). Altogether, the early decision-making of Taiwanese officials and experience of dealing with public health emergencies helped to expedite the process of reducing COVID-19 cases.

However Taiwan’s coronavirus response is plagued by “pandemic politics” as described by CNN. This is where the United States, China, and the WHO comes into play. While Taiwan’s early solutions for preventing COVID-19 have been praised by the international health community, the solutions are seemingly landing on deaf ears, especially in the West. This can be most likely attributed to Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO, where it is not a member state. Briefly summarized, the Chinese Communist Party has long upheld the “One China Policy” when it came to dealing with “internal affairs” regarding Taiwan, stating that only one government, the PRC, represents China within international organizations like the U.N (in this case the WHO) as well as international events. Taiwan on the other hand, formally named as the Republic of China, is not recognized by nearly every U.N member state, especially China, as its own country. Therefore, information, specifically Taiwan’s actionable and replicable coronavirus response, is less readily accessible to other countries. This situation poses a problem to the international health community in which President Donald Trump later used to criticize China and the WHO.

As the United States saw its COVID-19 cases begin to skyrocket beginning in the middle of March 2020, American government officials and Western media turned to investigate the country where the pandemic originated from — China. For President Donald Trump, shifting the narrative to China and its relationship with the WHO seemed to be a good way to save face. The United State’s deteriorating reputation due to the government’s inadequate domestic response in dealing with COVID-19 quickly became a game of foreign affairs. 

“I think criticism towards the World Health Organization and the Chinese government by the United States government is justified, but my problem with the criticism is that it feels like they are an attempt by the U.S. to pass blame on China, so that Americans would ignore their own government’s lies about the virus. The U.S. government initially lied about the virus, too, and then there was a two month delayed response. It seems unfair to only blame China but then not to take responsibility for your own actions,” said Carissa Wu ’21.

President Trump called out the WHO for being too “China-centric” when it came to not properly assessing the initial Wuhan outbreak in China and overlooking early mistakes in China’s early reporting of COVID-19 cases and containment methods. Meanwhile he also questioned China’s COVID-19 case numbers and said China’s “incompetence” led to the United States surging COVID-19 cases.

It is here that praise of Taiwan’s coronavirus response, exclusion from the WHA, and criticism of the Chinese government pushes Taiwan into the international spotlight. Although Taiwan has not gained observer status to the WHO this year, the country thanked the United States support for U.N inclusion and continues to solidify its presence with COVID-19 containment through soft power. Whether it is amplifying the solutions of Taiwanese health officials on social media and on various health forums or engaging in mask diplomacy, the Taiwanese government pushes forward for recognition on the global stage.

The early decision-making of Taiwanese officials and experience of dealing with public health emergencies helped to expedite the process of reducing COVID-19 cases.

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