“BECAUSE people experienced SARS, we know we have to wear masks. It is not politicized. Wearing of masks can stop the spread of the virus. You know, just do it,” Dr. Chou said in jest.
New York – The US – and the world – could learn much from Taiwan on how it managed to survive from the onslaught of the coronavirus. In a digital interview with International Center for Journalists president Joyce Barnathan, Dr. Jih-haw Chou, director-general for the Taiwan Centers for Diseases Control, provided straight-forward answers on how Taiwan re- sponded effectively to curb the pandemic.
Taiwan has a population of 23 million and reported seven deaths out of its 480 cases of covid19 infections. Today, it is almost ‘back to normal’ in the country, but with everyone following the national policy to wear masks, continuously wash hands, and keep social distancing. Taiwan is one of the seven countries hailed by Forbes magazine as having successfully dealt with the pandemic, along with Germany, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Denmark.
The ICFJ is a worldwide organization of journalists headquartered in Washington, DC. It conducted a series of webinars on lessons learned while reporting on (Continued on page 18) a pandemic. The forum with the Taiwanese director-general on August 18, 2020, was part of the series and titled: ‘How Taiwan rewrote its pandemic playbook and kept its Covid19 cases below 500’.
Early Detection and Quick Response
At the ICFJ forum, Dr. Chou said that early detection of the outbreak and quick reaction gave Taiwan an advantage to the virus.
Taiwan had detected early about an outbreak in China, through news and information in December 2019. Consequently, the Taiwanese government was on alert and did a “quick reaction.”
Taiwan President Tsai Ingwen mobilized the National Security Council and ordered for a travel ban from China, particularly from Wuhan, and provinces like Hubei (where Wuhan is located) and Guangdong, a manufacturing hub.
The Taiwanese government, said Dr. Chou, had started to quarantine people as early as December 31, 2019. He said that they were quick to respond because of their experience from the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Dr. Chou added that the government immediately activated the CDC Commanding Center and asked the hospitals to conduct tests and treat patients suspected to have contracted the coronavirus.
“Testing isn’t enough. Quarantine actually is key to stop the spread,” he stressed. The Taiwanese government poured a huge budget for testing, quarantine, and production of Personal Protective Equipment.
By connecting its systems in immigration, national health care, and hospitals, contact tracing and health intervention became efficient and successful. Dr. Chou said that US Health Secretary Alex Azar was particularly interested to learn about Taiwan’s integrated systems approach when he visited Taiwan.
People who entered Taiwan are quarantined for 21 days. Those developing symptoms are admitted to the hospital. After the 21 day quarantine, they undergo an additional 7-day house management and are taken to the hospital if needed.
In January, the Taiwanese government reached out to the World Health Organization, but did not receive an immediate response, said Dr. Chou. The government decided quickly on quarantine, testing, and hospital preparedness.
Single national policy on wearing of masks, social distancing, and washing of hands Dr. Chou said that Taiwan is currently back to normal, without restrictions in the conduct of business. But the government is strictly enforcing the national policy on wearing masks, frequent hand washing, and keeping socially distanced. “Yes, I support national policy (on health protocols) and implement it thoroughly,” he said.
ICFJ President Joyce Barnathan moderates the webinar.
“So restaurants are in full capacity?,” asked Barnathan.
“Yes, restaurants are operating in full capacity. But we let them all wear masks, keep social distancing, wash hands,” Dr. Chou remarked.
Unlike the US, Taiwanese government did not experience public resentment and cynicism about the wearing of masks and other health protocols, because of the people’s experience with SARS.
“Because people experienced SARS, we know we have to wear masks. It is not politicized. Wearing of masks can stop the spread of the virus. You know, just do it,” Dr. Chou said in jest.
He remembered that during the SARS outbreak, local governments ‘fought’ against national policy and people did not follow health protocols. “So now we set up the Central Pandemic Commanding Center and the local government followed. They modified strategies based on their situation. But we have a central command.”
The daily press conferences they do, he said, educated the people about the health issues to address skepticism. The Taiwanese government also used social media to reach out to the youth, for the young people were usually the ones who did not follow the rules.
Collaboration with journalists, medical society in order to succeed
According to Dr. Chou, working closely with the medical society in Taiwan has made the government credible to the people. On the issue of the need for a vaccine, for instance, doctors speak up on the importance of vaccination. “The cooperation of the medical society is the foundation of success, so people will understand (health protocols),” he said.
Dr. Chou also noted that journalists in Taiwan have collaborated well with the government.
“They did a very good job. They supervise us very personally in press conferences. They have a lot of criticisms. But we have to explain to them because we strongly believe that they are our partner in communicating with the people. They are very strict to us. But they are our strength for our work,” he remarked.
The Taiwanese government works with a factchecker company in order to respond quickly to misinformation. “We respond quickly to misinformation. We have a law that regulates and investigates sources of misinformation. And we fine them,” he quipped.