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Taiwan shows world how to deal with virus

International 13 Mar, 2020 Follow News

Testing every child daily is routine

Airport checks are thorough

Face masks are compulsory in Taiwan

Schoolkids are used to wearing face masks

This map puts in context the size of Taiwan compared to China

With the world in panic over the coronavirus pandemic and every strata of each affected country’s society disrupted by it; the most amazing stat is that Taiwan has negligible levels of infection despite being only 81 miles from mainland China.

When the outbreak first reached alarming levels in China in December, predictions were that Taiwan’s 24 million residents faced an intense outbreak with the likelihood of many deaths. Yet Taiwan has completely dispelled that warning. But because Taiwan initially took swift and effective measures, they have less than 50 infections of Covid-19. This was through a strict travel ban on China, Hong Kong and Macau although extensive travel and commerce with China could not be totally halted.

The virus has infected more than 105,000 people worldwide and impacted 93 countries. At press time, there were no reported cases of Covid-19 in the Cayman Islands although at least five people have been tested for it.

Many factors placed Taiwan at high risk, including dense urban populations, a high number of travellers from China, the coronavirus outbreak erupting during the Lunar New Year holiday, and a large population of Taiwanese citizens living or working in China. Yet defied the classic factors they have.

Taiwan’s success in stemming the numbers is amazing. Unlike China, Taiwan learned from previous outbreaks and prepared adequately for this one. It has a super-efficient National Health Command Centre (NHCC), an agency established after the 2002-03 SARS epidemic which was explicitly created to help contain future disease outbreaks.

The NHCC helped Taiwan quickly determine the dangers posed by the coronavirus, ensured various government agencies were fully informed, and implemented effective counter measures.

Taiwan’s Vice President Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist by training and health minister during the SARS crisis, identified key elements of the program. It included transparency, information sharing, staffing agencies with relevant experts and coordinating the efforts of government labs with hospitals and other medical facilities across the island. Basically, every department was mobilised from the get-go. And it’s working perfectly.

Communication and swift action are the key. Information management is an invaluable component of Taiwan’s response. Data from Taiwan’s health insurance and immigration agencies are integrated so doctors have immediate access to the travel histories of their patients, helping them decide who needs coronavirus testing the most.

Infrastructure developed by the NHCC enabled a remarkably quick response to initial reports from Wuhan where it originated, with Taiwanese health officials boarding flights from the region as early as Dec. 31 to check passengers for symptoms.

On Jan. 20, President Tsai Ing-wen announced that current Health Minister Chen Shih-chung would personally supervise operations and host daily press conferences to keep the public informed.

And as the seriousness of the outbreak became clear, the legislature passed a special bill allocating NT$60 billion (US$2 billion) to fund containment and control efforts, including border control, paid leave for caregivers and the sick, the manufacture of essential equipment like face masks, forming protocols for tracing sources of infection and reducing the risk of transmission in settings such as schools, hospitals and transportation systems.

It has worked beautifully. In the Caribbean, at press time, Jamaica with a population of 2.8 million had at least two cases and Guyana (780,000) has at least one. There are five cases in French Guiana (290,000) and five in the Dominican Republic (10.77m). These figures put in perspective how well Taiwan is coping.

Crucially, the government does not forget about people who tested negative for the virus — it retests them to keep track of new cases. Additionally, Taiwan's health-insurance system covers 99 percent of the population, adding that affordable coverage virtually guarantees that people don't need to choose between their personal and financial health.

To stem the crisis, Taipei required television and radio stations to broadcast hourly public-service announcements about the coronavirus, including how it spreads and how people should prevent infection.

Anyone trying to conceal having it faces excruciating fines. One patient who tried to hide the fact that he had the disease was fined $10,000, a fortune where the average monthly wage is only CI$1,500.

Even more impressive is how responsible Taiwan citizens are. They have intensified their safety practices. More than 95 percent of parents take their child's temperature at home and report it to the school before the children arrive. Regardless of what the government does, people are taking responsibility for their own health.

Public and private buildings have screened entrants for signs of fever, and apartment buildings have put hand sanitizer inside or outside elevators. All told, Taiwan has set the template for every country to follow. Years of preparation made it possible. Everybody else ignored the warning signs with other outbreaks. Taiwan simply made sure they were ahead of the curve.

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