Lessons from Taiwan on tackling the coronavirus pandemic


On Tuesday, May 5, I attended an online seminar hosted by The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) Party, with the topic being what lessons Europe could learn from Taiwan in tackling the coronavirus pandemic.

Taiwan has 439 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 339 having recovered and just 6 deaths.

Today, I’d like to discuss some of the insights I gleaned from Audrey Tang, the Digital Minister in the government of Taiwan who discussed Taiwan’s approach to fighting the pandemic.

A collective memory of SARS

Taiwan worked hard following the trauma posed by the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, making citizens diligent against another such occurrence. 

This “collective memory,” as Tang put it, allowed its open civic society to find new ways to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and respond quickly to potential problems, in addition to making everyone follow advice from the government about wearing masks and keeping physical distancing rules in place.

Taiwan prides itself on transparency. By this, Tang meant the government is transparent to the people, and in turn, they trust people not to misuse data made available under their open data policies.

The Taiwanese Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) holds a live streamed daily afternoon press conference to update people on any possible cases that have developed, in addition to answering questions from journalists. 

Additionally, anyone could pick up their phone and call the CECC to offer information or solutions, or even ask for support. One case Tang mentioned was how a young boy called the CECC because he was afraid he would be bullied for wearing a pink face mask to school. The next day, the experts at the CECC wore pink face masks in a show of solidarity.

That said, it also helps that the National Health Insurance system of Taiwan ensures people there can get treated if they’re showing symptoms without incurring a financial burden.

Technology playing its part

Technology plays a big part in this initiative as well, both as a collaborative endeavor from civil society and as a counter-disinformation activity. 

For instance, Tang said information is available on the stock levels of masks across all its pharmacies. This information is updated every 3 minutes, so stock levels are known in near-real time. 

The updated information available, in concert with Taiwan’s open data policies, allow coders in the country to make over 100 tools related to tracking the mask stocks available that are inclusive of everyone’s specific needs or frailties, such as maps or chat bots, or a voice assistant for those with difficulty seeing. There are also dashboards that show the stock of masks is growing, so as to allay fears and stop panic buying.

Tang also touched upon how Taiwan has a counter-disinformation strategy in place, using humor and factual viral memes to counter the spread of disinformation and rumor, and thus countering the effects of disinformation such as the aforementioned panic buying and anxiety.

Despite the seeming prevalence of tools and memetic imagery to counter falsehoods, Tang also said the country did contact tracing using interviews, and not through an application. 

Testing, meanwhile, is done at the borders, with visitors subject to quarantines, testing, and treatment depending on where they came from and whether they showed symptoms or not. 

Those under quarantine are then tracked using geofencing. In this geofencing scenario, telecommunications companies in Taiwan voluntarily track either a phone given to a potential quarantined individual or the phone of that individual. If the phone leaves the quarantine geofencing, or runs out of battery, the telecommunications companies alert authorities so they can investigate.

Equal respect 

One of the best things about the seminar was Tang discussing the approach taken by authorities towards well-meaning people – a policy of equal respect was in play, so that the entire community gets ahead.

Chen Chien-Jen, Vice President of Taiwan, is also an epidemiologist, and took the time to set up an online course to teach people about the basics of epidemiology and what is currently known about the coronavirus.

Above, you can actually watch his crash course on the subject, and it’s in multiple languages so everyone can get in on the learning.

Further, CECC's leader treats input with respect. Instead of top-down authority, people feel free to create social innovations by acting on available knowledge, which others can then iterate on. 

Cynics might think the entire seminar was meant as a ploy to bring recognition to the country… but the fact is Taiwan has gone at least 23 days without any new local infections. 

In my estimation, they want the world to know there are ways to keep people safe without becoming authoritarian about it, and with the world – and the infection counts – the way they are now, some good news might just be worth listening to. – Rappler.com

Victor Barreiro Jr.

Victor Barreiro Jr is part of Rappler's Central Desk. An avid patron of role-playing games and science fiction and fantasy shows, he also yearns to do good in the world, and hopes his work with Rappler helps to increase the good that's out there.

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