A model for the world: Public policy in Taiwan is getting the coronavirus response right

By Chris Johnson

Wednesday March 18, 2020

Taiwan street. Adobe

With the success of Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak being praised around the world, The Mandarin has received a briefing presentation from the Taiwanese government on how it swiftly made and effectively enacted sound public policy decisions.

As nations across the globe grapple with how best to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, much has been noted about Taiwan’s highly efficient response to the virus.

Taipei’s proactive stance is being hailed as an example for governments everywhere to follow. Some are now doing so, while others simply can’t.

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Visitors to Taipei have long recognised it as a clean and impressively functional city, but the coronavirus response has highlighted just how organised Taiwan’s public sector is.

Yes, it has the benefit of the SARS experience in 2003 (and part of what Taipei learned then was not to accept at face value all information emanating from Beijing about the outbreak), and Taiwan is an island state with a relatively small population of 23.7 million.

It is very close to mainland China, however (130kms), and has almost one million of its citizens living and working there. The impact of the virus on Taiwan could be huge. Yet to date, confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Taiwan remain in the 70s, while its Asian neighbours, the US, and many European countries, clock up cases in the thousands — some in the tens of thousands.

So far, Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 is proving to be quite remarkable, showcasing how public policy can be quickly and effectively implemented at a time of crisis.

With its Central Epidemic Command Centre fully recommissioned, the government is taking no chances. Yet life goes on largely as normal. Schools, offices and restaurants remain open. There is a sense of “we’ve got this” about the approach. The approach is swift, methodical, precise and thorough. And it is working.

The Mandarin has received a briefing presentation from Taiwan’s Minister for Health and Welfare, Chen Shih-Chung, outlining the CECC response measures in place for addressing the outbreak in Taiwan.

The minister paints a clear picture of a government and public sector switched on to the task. Enlisting the private sector where necessary; imposing thorough quarantining protocols; capitalising on technology; applying significant penalties.

The results speak for themselves.

Dr Chen outlined that people with travel history to China, Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea, Iran or Italy (and subsequently Egypt) are ordered to home quarantine.

“The local civil affairs bureau or borough chief will be active, monitoring this once or twice a day,” he said.

“If the health authority issues a Health Declaration Card and Home Quarantine Notification, the individual is to stay at home or a specified location and not leave that specified location and may not use public transportations.

“Individuals not adhering to the above measures will be penalised under the relevant regulations and be forcibly placed.”

The same regime applies to people who have had contact with any confirmed coronavirus cases.

“For monitoring home isolation or quarantine, they must have their cell phone GPS location,” he said.

“If they leave home or lose contact, telecom operators will send a message. Police officers undertake location checking. The public are required to return home and turn on their mobile phone.”

Health checks and phone tracking are key to Taiwan’s response to the crisis. As a world leader in technology, Taiwan is skilfully using this expertise where it is most needed.

Another key feature of the Taiwanese response is how the government has engaged the private sector to work alongside the public sector in tackling the crisis. The government bought all domestic supplies of surgical face masks, banned their export, and had more produced with the help of the military. It is distributing the masks fairly across the community and to frontline medical and healthcare workers. It also commissioned the production of more alcohol-based sanitising lotions.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has praised the public and private sectors for aligning on the task when called on to do so.

“Taiwan’s ability to combat the coronavirus behind the epidemic underscores the resilience of its people,” she said.

“All segments of society are working in unity to weather this challenge.”

While focussed on containing the spread of the virus, the response also includes a care and support system for those in quarantine and home isolation.

“Meal delivery, garbage collection, settlement, local government hotline, designated ambulance, medical care and arrangements (are provided),” Dr Chen said.

Yet with all the success to date, and with praise from the rest of the world, the Government of Taiwan is also realistic. It knows it has good policy in place to minimise the impact of COVID-19. The results show the policies are working. But the Health Minister has warned the community it is inevitable that the virus will transmit to more of the population.

During a recent The Conversation podcast, Professor Michael Wallach from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, suggested as much.

“The country that handled this outbreak the best so far has been Taiwan,” he said.

“The Taiwanese have been amazing in the sense that after the pandemic commenced in China, many Taiwanese returned to Taiwan. And you would have expected they’d seed that island very strongly and it would be a major outbreak. They were ready before the pandemic commenced. And that was largely because they went through a SARS outbreak.

“Previously, they had in place all the testing, all the people. They have the best health system in the world… and they should be commended on that. It’s quite amazing the way they did that.

“The issue now in Taiwan, which concerns them, is in the end, that’s a great start. But their population now is unexposed and susceptible. So how do you release them from this sort of quarantine situation? That is the next phase.”

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