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How has Taiwan kept its coronavirus infection rate so low?

Taiwan's number of COVID-19 infections is currently below 400, despite the island's proximity to the outbreak's origin on mainland China. Experts say early intervention has helped stop a public health crisis.

By: | Updated: April 9, 2020 5:03:23 pm
When the outbreak first started in January, some experts predicted that Taiwan would have the highest number of cases outside of mainland China.

More than two months after a new virulent coronavirus emerged from the Chinese city of Wuhan, more than 1.4 million people in dozens of countries around the world have been infected.

The COVID-19 infection, however, has largely spared Taiwan, despite the island’s relative proximity to the virus’s origin.

When the outbreak first started in January, some experts predicted that Taiwan would have the highest number of cases outside of mainland China.

However, while mainland China has had over 80,000 COVID-19 cases to date, Taiwan has kept its number of confirmed cases below 400. Some international health experts credit this to Taiwan’s quick preparation and early intervention.

Taiwan took early action

“Due to the hard lessons that Taiwan learned during the SARS epidemic in 2003, it is more prepared for the coronavirus outbreak than many other countries,” said Dr. Chunhuei Chi, a public health professor at the Oregon State University in the US.

Taiwan’s government introduced a travel ban on visitors from China, Hong Kong and Macau soon after the number of coronavirus cases began to rise in mainland China.

Anticipating the high demand for masks in late January, the Taiwanese government started rationing the existing supply of masks. Taiwanese citizens can now go to designated drug stores across the island to line up and buy a specific amount of masks on a weekly basis. Chi pointed out that this policy has also been duplicated in other countries like South Korea and France.

“Taiwan leveraged the strength of its manufacturing sector and invested approximately $6.8 million (€ 6 million) to create 60 new mask production lines,” said Chi.

“This increased Taiwan’s daily mask pro production capacity from 1.8 million masks to 8 million masks. This has been called ‘Taiwan’s Mask Miracle.'”

Technology for early detection

The Taiwanese government has also used data technology to help medical personnel identify and trace suspected patients and high-risk individuals.

In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Jason Wang, a public health policy expert at Stanford University in the US, highlighted Taiwan’s use of technology to track the whereabouts of those under quarantine.

“The government will call you and try to figure out where you are,” said Wang. “They can track people with their phone, which allows them to make sure all individuals who are supposed to go through the mandatory 14-day quarantine and are not violating the rules by sneaking out of their quarantine locations.”

The Taiwanese government also provides support for those put under quarantine. Local village leaders will bring a bag of basic supplies like food or books to quarantined individuals. Since most quarantines are enforced, the Taiwanese government also rolled out a welfare program that provides a $30 daily allowance to those affected by the quarantine during the two-week period.

“This gives Taiwanese people more incentive to report their symptoms honestly,” Wang said.

“That’s the way democracies are handling quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, and it’s very different from authoritarian governments. I think this is a case where democracies should leverage their data and technologies appropriately, so they can triage people to the right place and follow up with appropriate care.”

Taiwan fights off Chinese disinformation

While the Taiwanese government was busy containing the coronavirus outbreak, the island also witnessed a surge of coronavirus disinformation on popular social media platforms.

Mixed with simplified Mandarin characters typically used in mainland China, and phrases that are mostly unfamiliar to social media users in Taiwan, researchers quickly concluded that these disinformation campaigns originated from mainland China.

Taiwan FactCheck Center, a nonprofit organization that focuses on debunking disinformation in Taiwan, quickly informed the general public of these disinformation campaigns, which were mostly aimed at the Taiwanese government.

“This wave of disinformation campaign is a new vector for an old form of attack, using a health crisis as a new way of attacking Taiwan,” said Nick Monaco, director of the digital intelligence lab at the Institute for the Future.

Monaco said that transparent communication between the government and civil society in Taiwan helps fend off disinformation campaigns.

“All these things combined make the danger of mass rumors being spread in a situation like this pretty improbable,” Monaco told DW. “Before rumors like this become widespread, they are already debunked by the Taiwan Fact Check Center and the Taiwanese government.”

Taiwan’s medical research

Taiwan has also invested in its biomedical research capacity over the last few decades and research teams have been working to mass-produce a rapid diagnostic test for COIVD-19.

Last Sunday, a research team at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica sucessfully generated and tested an antibody that can be used to identify the protein that causes the coronavirus. They aim to produce a new rapid test for the coronavirus that can shorten the time frame for diagnosis to 20 minutes.

The lead researcher of the team, Dr. Yang An-Suei, said on March 8 that the next step for the team is to validate the product before rolling out a rapid test kit in Taiwan.

And although Beijing continues to block Taiwan from rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO), public health expert Wang said that Taiwan continues to share its experience in combating the coronavirus outbreak with other countries.

“Taiwan has been sharing their epidemic prevention strategies with other countries through tele-conferences, while helping countries that lack advanced medical capabilities to process samples from patients,” Wang said.

“In my opinion, WHO needs Taiwan far more than Taiwan needs the WHO in the fight against coronavirus,” said Chi.

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