Do you remember what it’s like to eat out at restaurants? To hang out at bars and clubs? To work in an office? To send your kids to school? To go to concerts, sporting events, birthday parties and weddings? In short, to live your life without having to worry about a deadly disease?
For people in Taiwan, it’s not anything they need to remember; it’s always been this way. They recently celebrated 200 days without a local transmitted case of Covid-19. And even before that milestone, life never really changed all that much. For several reasons which I’ll get into in a bit, there was never a lockdown and virtually no change in anyone’s daily lives, sans some social distancing and having to wear a mask in crowds.
I was here when the virus first hit. As ridiculous as it sounds now, my initial inclination was to run back to the U.S. because I thought it would be safer. Fortunately I ended up staying, which very well could have prevented me from getting sick or worse.
Naysayers will claim it’s because the population is small. But 24 million people (the same population as Australia) is hardly tiny. Furthermore, even if you multiplied Taiwan’s Covid deaths by 14 (U.S. population of 328 million / 24 million = 14), that still only adds up to 98.
The other argument is that it’s an island. But then how to account for the hundreds of thousands of cases in island nations like The Philippines or Indonesia? Or even Hawaii’s 15,000 cases, or Sri Lanka’s 10,000?
No matter how you spin it, Taiwan is doing something right.
How they did it
There are two main factors behind their incredible success, both of which are glaringly absent from the United States and other countries:
- A fast-acting, heavily prepared government
- A population that follows the rules and prizes safety above personal self-interest
Ever since SARS, Taiwan has been ready for the next pandemic. When Covid began, the first thing the government did was to ban all travel from China. I’m talking immediately. Trump claims he did the same thing, when in reality he waited over a month to do it. Furthermore, it wasn’t actually a travel ban but a travel restriction, which only applied to non-U.S. citizens. Chinese-Americans and their families were still eligible to travel between the two countries, and thousands did, even months later.
Next, Taiwan made it mandatory to wear masks on all public transportation, no exceptions. They also installed temperature scanners at the entrances of places like train stations and shopping malls, and many restaurants began checking the temperature of patrons before they could enter.
Most impressively, they combined contact tracing with rapid and massive communication. For example, after they discovered a positive case in Taipei, they were able to trace where the person went after being exposed. Then, everyone in the city and the surrounding area (millions of people) received a text message with a map of these locations. If you had traveled to any of these places during this specific time period, you were advised to self-quarantine. They did the same thing months later when several sailors returning from a good-will mission to Palau ending up catching the virus.
None of these efforts were even attempted in the U.S., and others were swiftly blocked. The Postal Service for example had a plan to deliver reusable masks to every household in America in April. They even wrote up a press release. But The White House nixed it.
Instead they assembled a fake Coronavirus team, led by the anti-science Vice President and Trump’s son-in-law, who admitted to Bob Woodward that they purposely did next to nothing. This was all in order to stage a glorious “comeback phase” for Trump, after the initial phases they eloquently dubbed “panic” and “pain.”
It’s not just the government’s fault
Some responsibility must also fall on the American people themselves. And not just anti-maskers; to some extent we are all guilty. There is something deep in the American psyche that pushes us to go against the grain, even if it can potentially hurt or kill us. My very first piece on Medium is about this if you’re so inclined to read it.
I myself am culpable. When I initially had to wear a mask around Taipei, I complained incessantly, feeling inconvenienced, even violated. There was a part of me — which I can only attribute to my “Americanness” — that wanted to rebel against it with every fiber of my being. But eventually I realized that there was nothing righteous about my beliefs; I was just acting like a spoiled child. A big American baby who didn’t like being told what to do.
Another way this manifested was when I recently returned to Taiwan from the U.S., where I had to fly back for a serious family emergency. More on that here if you’re curious.
Upon my arrival I needed to quarantine for two weeks. As soon as I got off the plane I had to register my phone with the government (if you don’t have a local number you can get a SIM Card at the airport). This is so they can track your location for the entire 14-day period to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be. They’ll also text you every morning and ask about your condition.
I stayed in a quarantine hotel, which sounds scary and odd but was just a Holiday Inn Express near the airport. The hotel provided three meals a day, and if I needed more food I could always order from UberEats.
Even here my Americanness reared its ugly head. Upon arriving at the hotel, and throughout my stay, I had several questions:
Could I run to the corner 7–11 to buy some provisions?
Could I leave my room, even to stretch my legs in the hallway?
Could I get a real towel, instead of these disposable ones?
The answer was always the same: “No.”
And while I was initially put out, I realized once again that I was the one with the problem, not Taiwan or the Taiwanese government. After all, their intense caution and adherence to the rules is the reason they’re currently the safest country in the world.
To wrap this up, I wonder if it’s possible to emulate this in the U.S., at the very least to evolve as a citizenry that can accept a tiny bit of personal inconvenience in order to potentially save lives. I want to believe we can. But after what happened in Sandy Hook, when 20 children lost their lives and the NRA didn’t even blink, it’s obvious that this will be an uphill battle.
But we have to try. While it’s too late this time, we can prepare ourselves for the next one. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Because like it or not they’re gonna keep on coming. And until we finally get our act together and elect responsible officials, as well as do some serious soul-searching about our own behavior, we’re going to keep making the same mistakes that got us here in the first place.