Got COVID-19? Follow the Taiwan Protocols

Got COVID-19? Follow the Taiwan Protocols
Soldiers from military chemical units take part in a drill organized by the New Taipei City government to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in the Xindian District of New Taipei, Taiwan, on March 14, 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)
James Gorrie

As the United States deals with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s critical that we learn the lessons of both Taiwan and Italy.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, while the Chinese city of Wuhan was being ravaged by the virus, epidemiologists figured that Taiwan was at high risk of being the very next hotspot outside of China for the deadly contagion.

That was an entirely reasonable conclusion. With the island nation’s close proximity (80 miles) and deep economic ties with China, it was the perfect scenario for infecting the island’s population.

What’s more, with hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese working in China and traveling back and forth between Taiwan and the mainland, a widespread infection could hardly be avoided.

But the epidemic never happened in Taiwan.

As of March 17, Taiwan’s infection numbers are amazingly low. With a population of about 23.8 million, the country’s total number of cases appears to have stabilized at about 75. Even more impressive is that only one death has been reported. Furthermore, 20 people have been released from quarantine, and the remaining patients are reportedly in stable condition, although they remain in hospital isolation.

Huge Difference in Outcomes

By contrast, Italy’s statistics are horrific, even though it is more than 4,700 miles away from China. With a population of 60.5 million, which is 2.5 times the size of Taiwan’s, Italy is the worst-hit country in Europe, with a COVID-19 infection death rate that can only be described as staggering.

Italy has reported more than 27,900 cases and 2,100 deaths in total, and counting. That’s an infection rate of almost 400 times that of Taiwan. Italy’s mortality rate from the disease far exceeds than that of Taiwan. And yet both countries have significant, even extensive economic ties with China.

The difference in outcomes between the two countries is stark and critical to understand.

Rational Thinking Is the First Line of Defense

Once Taiwan understood that a new epidemic was present in China, it acted quickly and decisively on several fronts at the same time. Deciding to employ rational thought processes, therefore, was the country’s first line of defense.

The Taiwan government’s logical decision to act quickly and boldly was only possible because it was not burdened with the stigma and impact of political correctness. Unlike governments in the West, the Taiwanese not only have recent experience in dealing with a Chinese-borne virus during the SARS epidemic of 2002–2003, but dealing with the Chinese in general.

Nor did Taiwan have to deal with the treachery that comes from deep internal political divisions from within. The Taiwan authorities were all well aware of China’s record of bending the truth—or hiding it altogether—regarding the facts about when, where and how the SARS epidemic started, its risk factors, and other critical data. In other words, this time around, no sane person in Taipei believed a word Beijing said about what was then called the Wuhan virus.
And, again, unlike many Western governments, the Taiwanese are not in the least afraid of hurting Beijing’s feelings. Perhaps that’s because Beijing has repeatedly blocked Taiwan’s membership application to join the World Health Organization (WHO), a move that certainly undercuts both WHO’s and Beijing’s credibility.
China’s perennial threat to invade might also have something to do with Taiwan’s disregard for offending Beijing’s sensibilities.

Sensible Border Control and Quarantines

That’s precisely why Taiwan almost immediately took strict control of its borders, stopping all travel to and from China. Contrary to the scientific and epidemic advisers here in the United States, the Taiwanese somehow reasoned that not allowing more potentially-infected people from the virus’s host country does not make us less safe.

Instead, Taiwan authorities figured that such restrictions would lessen the chances of the disease spreading throughout the entire population. That was indeed the case.

The next step that was taken simultaneously was enforcing a mandatory two-week quarantine on all persons who had recently entered Taiwan. This was done via police monitoring travelers’ smartphones to verify their compliance with quarantine or self-isolation. This advanced leveraging of technology may not be possible in all countries, but commandeering hotels and other facilities to enforce inbound travelers’ isolation certainly should be.

Keeping Medical Supplies in the Country

Another strategic move that Taiwan made was to prohibit the exportation of key medical supplies, specifically anti-viral medical masks. Again, some experts in the United States have said that healthy people don’t need a mask.

The Taiwanese, however, made sure that they had enough available. Otherwise, how would one stop from inhaling the virus from an unmasked, asymptomatic carrier?

One obvious point here is the utter folly it is for any country to allow itself to rely on an adversarial nation for its critical medical supplies and pharmaceuticals. Taiwan has not done so, while the United States has.

No Lockdowns?

Interestingly enough, Taiwan isn’t following the mass testing that is happening elsewhere. They’re simply not testing people in massive numbers. So far, it is only checking or screening about 800 people a day. What’s more, not everyone who is quarantined or self-isolates is being tested for infection.

Nor is Taiwan putting the entire nation under lockdown. Surprisingly, stores, cafes and other public places have remained open for business. Patrons are checked for fever and hands are sprayed with sanitizer prior to entry, but there’s certainly not the social and economic standstill that we’re seeing in the West.

So far, Taiwan’s COVID-19 protocol seems to be working, as does its economy. Can other countries apply it as effectively?

That’s difficult to say. As noted, not every nation has the capacity to leverage smartphones to enforce quarantines. Plus, many nations are much larger both in geography and population, as well as much more diverse, making it harder to act in a unified and coordinated fashion at the national level. But it may make sense to apply Taiwan’s protocol at the state or provincial level.

Has Taiwan seen the last of the pandemic?

Probably not.

Community transmission is likely to continue at some level. But given the country’s success at managing the outbreak, the near future looks brighter and healthier than Italy’s, as well as those of other countries.

James Gorrie is a writer and speaker based in Southern California. He is the author of “The China Crisis.”
James R. Gorrie is the author of “The China Crisis” (Wiley, 2013) and writes on his blog, He is based in Southern California.
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