Taiwan Is Exporting Its Coronavirus Successes to the World
Despite being shut out of WHO, Taiwan has largely succeeded in containing the coronavirus. Even as it faces a second wave of infections, it is helping other countries—and bolstering its soft power in the process.
TAIPEI—Taiwan has won global praise for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. As the world closes borders and enforces quarantines to combat the outbreak, leaders are looking to Taipei for a model to emulate—and, increasingly, for help.
On March 19, Taiwan closed its borders to nonresidents amid a second wave of imported cases among travelers returning from abroad. The self-governing island now has 379 COVID-19 cases, a number that has remained relatively low due to a series of aggressive containment, quarantine, and monitoring measures that have limited local transmission of the coronavirus.
Taiwan, which is not part of the World Health Organization (WHO), decided to screen all passengers from Wuhan starting on Dec. 31, the same day it learned of the then-unknown virus in the Chinese city. Days later, the WHO was first warned that the virus appeared to transmit by direct human-to-human contact—a statement that was ignored. Taiwan’s 23 million citizens have taken precautions but have refrained from panic, confident in the centralized and consistent flow of information from Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center—set up in immediate response to the virus—and countries such as New Zealand and Israel have said they will use Taiwan’s response to influence their own.
Most of the world, however, was not as proactive as Taiwan in preparing for the coronavirus outbreak. The United States and Europe are scrambling to contain the pandemic as global cases exceed 1.4 million. The Philippines, Taiwan’s southern neighbor, is reeling from an outbreak in Manila that has left its hospitals overburdened, its outlying provinces vulnerable, and its population panicked; other South and Southeast Asian countries are struggling to contain their own outbreaks. For these countries, it’s too late to implement the Taiwanese model; they must rapidly test and treat patients.
But it is not too late for Taiwan to help. Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Twitter that Taiwan is “willing to contribute our capabilities to better protect human health around the world.” On April 1, Taiwan announced it would donate 10 million masks to the United States, 11 European countries, and its diplomatic allies. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that a second batch of six million masks would be donated to countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
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“Taiwan can, using our resources, help these countries,” said Wang Ting-yu, a legislator with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.
Wang, who sits on the legislature’s foreign affairs committee, is one of Taiwan’s most vocal adopters of the Twitter hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp. Originally a rallying cry to allow Taiwan to participate in international organizations (including WHO) that stubbornly exclude it at the behest of Beijing, the phrase is now often attached to stories of Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus. And while Taiwan is committed to protecting its own population first—experts fear cases could spike again due to the large number of residents returning to Taiwan in the past month—it is striving to provide assistance.
There’s an added benefit as well: Taiwan is eager to strengthen its bilateral relationships after Beijing has pushed it out of global dialogues and poached many of its diplomatic allies, leaving Taipei with only 15. It’s an opportunity for the Tsai administration to pursue its goals of building a diplomatic network for Taiwan on its own, outside the confines of its ties with China.
“We cannot be selfish,” Wang said. “We need to cooperate as fast as possible.”
Last month, Taipei forged a bilateral agreement with the U.S. representative office in Taiwan that would allow masks to be sent to the United States. Wang hopes the agreement is soon replicated with other countries.
Taiwan can also assist other nations with logistics and operations, allocation of production and resources, and the use of data for tracking potentially infected individuals and contact tracing to prevent further spread, said the Stanford Health Policy researcher C. Jason Wang, who co-wrote a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article contains a list of 124 actions Taiwan took to combat the outbreak that other countries can pull from, including screening at airports and enforcement of mandatory 14-day quarantines.
Taiwan, like the United States, is a democracy that deals with rampant online misinformation. Unlike the United States, its commitment to clear, unified messaging has kept the public largely confident in official policy and strategies. Even normally controversial monitoring procedures and penalties for spreading false information about the coronavirus have largely escaped harsh scrutiny among a public largely confident in its government’s ability to contain the outbreak.
“Taiwan used the language and terminology of fighting a war,” said Chunhuei Chi, a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “With that mentality came extreme policy.”
World leaders are realizing their benefits. Israel said last month that it would emulate Taiwan’s monitoring of potential patients. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also said her country was “going to follow, pretty closely, the Taiwanese model.”
“This is the soft power of Taiwan,” Chi said, and he is eager for the Taiwanese government to move from serving as a model to providing active, direct assistance. Taipei’s open data information-sharing strategy, helmed by Digital Minister Audrey Tang, has won worldwide admirers and can potentially be replicated in other areas. The Taiwanese health care system is equipped to disperse patients to various hospitals and avoid overloading, a model that can be tailored to an area’s specific needs and facilities.
Latin America still “has time to do early planning and early deployment,” Chi said—meaning it can directly emulate some of Taiwan’s earliest preventive measures—while African countries may be underreporting due to an inability to test. Regardless of the circumstances, he said, now is a good time to talk.
Taiwan has already called over 50 diplomats in Taipei to a conference headed by its health and welfare minister, said Wang, the legislator, and has provided direct assistance in diagnosing and curing patients to some of its 15 diplomatic allies. Wang said Taiwan has started to explore ways to provide remote training to medical staff in Southeast Asian countries including the Philippines, where doctors and nurses have requested assistance.
Chiang Kuan-yu, the head of the Taiwan Association for Global Health Diplomacy, participated in a recent videoconference with city health officials in Boston in which medical experts from National Taiwan University and Kaohsiung Medical University played out community infection scenarios and advised them on transporting patients between hospitals to prevent overloading while avoiding further spread of the coronavirus. It’s a lesson Taiwan learned during the 2003 SARS outbreak, when National Taiwan University Hospital was overwhelmed by an internal outbreak of SARS and the entire hospital was quarantined. This event, more than any other, inspired Taiwan to ensure its hospital network would be equipped to handle a future viral outbreak.
Chiang and his group, which is made up of medical professionals researching Taiwan’s international engagement, have sidestepped the ban on Taiwanese participation in the annual World Health Assembly by setting up an exhibition outside and meeting with WHO officials in the Geneva train station. “We have experience we can share with other countries, collaborate with other countries,” said Chiang, who is planning a videoconference to coincide with this year’s assembly should it occur.
The bilateral Taiwan-U.S. agreement may be a natural starting point for more formal cooperation. The U.S. government has built strong ties with Taiwan since Tsai took office in 2016. Both Taipei and Washington share a skepticism of Beijing that, for Taiwan, was only reinforced when the WHO ignored warnings of human-to-human transmission until China confirmed it on Jan. 20, two weeks later. Taiwan and the United States also have a long history of cooperation in the pharmaceutical sector, said David Lee, the CEO of Boston-based Servier Pharmaceuticals.
Many drugs and vaccines on the global market are developed in Taiwan and sent to the U.S. market for clinical trials. “Taiwan has a very healthy ecosystem for innovation [with] big government support and heavy investment in innovation and science,” Lee said. Because of its centralized national health system, it “can look at a ton of data very quickly,” making it one of the few places able to efficiently and rapidly develop antiviral medications and vaccines
At Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost research institution, researchers at the Genomics Research Center announced on March 9 that they had successfully tested new coronavirus antibodies that could be used to create a test kit that detected the virus in 20 minutes. On April 2, Taiwan’s National Health Research Institutes said it had developed a rapid testing kit that provided results in 10 to 15 minutes and would discuss trial production with businesses this week. Successful mass production of such kits would be game-changing as the world scrambles to procure more tests, especially those capable of delivering quick results.
Taiwan currently can’t export most outbound medical supplies, including personal protective equipment, due to export bans meant to ensure its domestic supply, and local manufacturers are already overburdened with production. This has led countries such as Italy and the Philippines to turn to China to procure necessary supplies—potentially a gift and a curse, given the questionable status of China’s own domestic containment, reports in several countries of faulty rapid testing kits from some Chinese suppliers, and the terms China applies to medical exports. “In a way, it’s the health version of debt trap diplomacy,” said Yuri Baral, an assistant research fellow in the international collaboration department of the Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation.
Taiwan’s leaders and health professionals have long bristled at its exclusion from the WHO. The coronavirus pandemic has led observers, such as former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen in a March op-ed in Time, to note that its participation in the global health governing body could have saved lives. On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry condemned what it called “groundless” accusations made by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that racist slurs directed toward him had originated in Taiwan. Tsai invited Tedros to visit Taiwan to experience “how committed the Taiwanese people are to engaging with the world and combating COVID-19.”
Taiwan, along with a growing list of nations, is continuing to push for its participation in the WHO, but, as multiple experts said, there is no time to wait. As Taiwan faces difficulties formally communicating with national governments, it has always targeted engagement through NGOs such as the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families, which provided food to poor children in Manila prior to its lockdown, and overseas business groups, which are donating masks to Philippine hospitals.
As countries around the world reel from the pandemic, Taiwan does have one ace up its sleeve: trust. Wang, the legislator, hopes that Taiwan’s transparency contrasted with doubts around China’s data will encourage other countries to reach out to Taipei for help. “We lost lives 17 years ago,” he said, referring to the SARS outbreak. “Now we know how to face this kind of disaster.”
Chi views Taiwan’s success in containing COVID-19 despite its exclusion from the WHO as a positive. “Taiwan should stay outside [WHO] and show the world how great it has been doing,” he said. “Taiwan has a strong reputation now. This is a good time for Taiwan to reach out.”