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When I moved back to Taiwan from Hong Kong in February, during the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, the difference between the two was stark. There was none of the frantic mask hoarding or panic-buying of toilet paper that I left behind. People carried on in a calm, controlled manner — neatly spaced six feet apart. In April, as the outbreak forced the delay of the Major League Baseball season in the United States, Taiwan’s own league began its games on time. A month later, fans were back in their seats. This summer, with international travel all but prohibited, Taiwanese people flocked to the island’s rugged eastern coast and packed offshore inlets. And in early August, music lovers attended shows performed by a local singer — the first arena concerts to occur in Asia since COVID-19 began its spread.
Taiwan’s success at managing the COVID-19 pandemic has stood out — even in Asia. As of the end of summer, a total of seven people there had died from the disease. (By contrast, at that time one American was dying of coronavirus, on average, every 80 seconds.) But none of this came easily. Taiwan suppressed the virus through a combination of several factors: early vigilance, proactive measures, transparency, and technology.
The fight against COVID-19 began on December 31, 2019, when officials started inspecting flight passengers arriving from Wuhan, China — likely the earliest prevention measure implemented anywhere in the world. Taiwanese authorities acted despite having learned only earlier that same day, from social media, of a mysterious illness spreading in Wuhan. They acted on the assumption that the illness was transmissible among humans, something that China would only acknowledge in mid-January.
Later in January, Taiwan barred its nationals from going to Wuhan; then, it enacted a ban on arrivals from China and Hong Kong in early February. Large events such as Taipei’s annual book fair, which is held every February, were postponed.
International visitors and returning locals, initially from certain countries but then from everywhere, were required to quarantine for 14 days at their homes or hotels. Authorities implemented phone tracking through cellular signals to ensure people in quarantine followed the rules while also making daily calls and providing care packages that included food and masks.
To ensure a coordinated response to COVID-19, the Taiwanese government set up the Central Epidemic Command Center, led by Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, which managed policies, resources, and communication with the public.
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In January, Taiwan’s government secured domestic face mask supplies by mandating that local companies ramp up production and ban mask exports. Authorities then implemented a rationing purchase system in early February that allowed every resident to buy masks at a subsidized price every two weeks. This system was extended to the end of 2020.
Masks were made mandatory on public transit, as well as in hospitals and places of worship. Finding them wasn’t hard: The Taiwanese government released data that enabled apps directing the public to stores where masks were available.
These measures have ensured that, throughout the pandemic, Taiwan has never really had a domestic outbreak. In March and April, cases from Taiwanese residents returning from overseas created a scare. In May, a small cluster of cases occurred among sailors on a three-ship flotilla that had returned from a tour in the Pacific. Authorities were quick to test everyone the sailors had encountered, and the cluster was quickly resolved.
Taiwan’s success at suppressing the virus hasn’t spared its economy, which, like everywhere else in the world, has endured significant pain. But the government acted to mitigate the damage, providing over $2 billion in subsidies to businesses and workers, over $25 billion in loans, and in July, issuing shopping vouchers in order to stimulate consumption.
As of the fall, life in Taiwan wasn’t yet completely back to normal. Precautionary measures were still being undertaken: hospitals, public transportation, and libraries maintain mandatory mask usage, while name registration and temperature checks are routine for visitors at museums and other public buildings. But living in Taiwan during the year of the pandemic was like experiencing an alternate reality — one that, in the context of how the rest of the world was faring, felt almost perverse.