A street food market in the Taiwanese city of Keelung on the evening of June 9, 2020, after Covid-19 rules were eased (Photo: Lin Yen Ting/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A street food market in the Taiwanese city of Keelung on the evening of June 9, 2020, after Covid-19 rules were eased (Photo: Lin Yen Ting/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

ScienceJune 17, 2020

Amid all NZ’s Covid back-patting, let’s not forget the country that did it first

A street food market in the Taiwanese city of Keelung on the evening of June 9, 2020, after Covid-19 rules were eased (Photo: Lin Yen Ting/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A street food market in the Taiwanese city of Keelung on the evening of June 9, 2020, after Covid-19 rules were eased (Photo: Lin Yen Ting/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

New Zealand has been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but the fastest country to act was Taiwan, which has gone 64 days without a new locally transmitted case. So why has it been overlooked?

When New Zealand announced on June 8 that it had reached the significant milestone of zero active Covid-19 cases, the international media erupted in praise. It was swift and universal. Jacinda Ardern’s popularity skyrocketed to new dimensions. Building on her strong response to the tragedy in Christchurch, the prime minister again asserted herself with grace and poise on the world stage. Her empathy shines through. 

The New York Times reported that Ardern was being widely praised for her “stringent approach” to dealing with Covid-19 and that New Zealand had achieved elimination. The Guardian, continuing its generous coverage of New Zealand, reported that the country was handshaking and hugging its way back to pre-Covid life, and that Ardern’s “strict”, “cautious” approach appeared to have paid off. CNN relayed the PM’s instantly famous line about her reaction to learning the news of the last patient’s recovery: “I did a little dance.” The New Zealand Herald summarised that the world had been “left in awe” by New Zealand’s success.  

But sitting here in Taiwan, where I’ve been based for many years, things looked a little different. While I was happy that New Zealand’s success was being internationally recognised, and that my family and friends had been kept safe, I couldn’t help but feel that Taiwan was being overlooked in the western media, along with other Asian countries that had laid the groundwork for New Zealand’s response. 

Temperatures are checked on entry to Top City department store in Taichung, Taiwan (Photo: Ron Hanson)

Ardern herself spoke of Taiwan in an interview with Newstalk ZB on March 15. Speaking about the plan to introduce crowd controls, Ardern said that New Zealand was going to “follow, pretty closely, the Taiwanese model”. Epidemiologist Michael Baker would elucidate further upon Taiwan’s influence in formulating New Zealand’s response. In an interview with US news show Democracy Now, Baker said that looking at what was going on in Taiwan and China prompted New Zealand to change approach. Some key conclusions had been reached. 

“And so, you do things in a different order, if you realise that. You actually throw everything at the pandemic early on. So, at the point that we had a hundred cases, no fatalities, around the 23rd of March, a decision was made to go for this elimination approach.”

Baker would continue to discuss Taiwan’s response. “But really, the best-performing country on Earth has actually been Taiwan, I think, because they acted very early. They didn’t need a lockdown. And that was because they had a very strong public health agency, and they started managing their borders in January. And they did everything right. So, I think they’ve had a model response.”

The most generally accepted epidemiological definition of elimination is of a country going 28 days – two incubation periods – without a local case. On June 8, the day that New Zealand announced it had no remaining active cases, Taiwan had gone 57 days with no local transmission and Vietnam 53. Whatever criteria we are using, Taiwan and Vietnam had long since met the definition of elimination. Yet, Taiwan’s and Vietnam’s successes at eliminating Covid-19 were not widely celebrated. I’ll leave it to another writer to analyse Vietnam’s response, but I’ll provide here some important information for understanding just how remarkable Taiwan’s achievement is. 

A social distancing sign on the floor of a 7-11 in Sun Moon Lake (Photo: Ron Hanson)

Taiwan was the fastest country to act. It knew this moment was coming and there was little room for error. Located just 81 miles off the coast of China, Taiwan has more than 850,000 citizens based there. In 2019, despite restrictions on Chinese tourism to Taiwan due to the island’s choice of president, Taiwan received 2.71 million Chinese visitors. There were frequent direct flights between Wuhan and Taiwan. Johns Hopkins University had predicted that Taiwan would have the world’s second-largest number of cases by the end of January. Currently the country is ranked 152nd. Taiwan has fewer than 450 confirmed cases and seven deaths among a population of almost 24 million. 

Taiwan’s numbers are reliable. Unlike China, Taiwan is a vibrant open democracy led by a popular woman president, Tsai Ing-wen. Taiwan recently became the first country in Asia to legalise gay marriage. After Tsai won a decisive re-election against the China-friendly populist presidential candidate Han Kuo-Yu, voters didn’t stop there. The aspiring demagogue Han would be recalled as mayor of Kaohsiung in a landslide that rocked the nation. 

Taiwan entered the Covid-19 crisis with a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist, Chen Chien-jen, as vice president. Taiwan’s digital minister, the trans hacker activist Audrey Tang, has played a key role in connecting with grassroots youth and pushing back against fake news and disinformation. As in New Zealand, it would be difficult to pull off a cover-up with a conservative opposition party constantly scrounging around for dirt to use against the government. Tsai has some powerful enemies.   

People wear masks as a common courtesy to prevent passing on their germs, not because they’re scared of getting sick (Photos of Ron Hanson and Ema Chang taken at the Museum of Art in Caotun township, Taiwan)

I want to confront a couple of lazy cultural and racial stereotypes that I frequently encounter. The first is the assumption that Taiwan’s Covid-19 success is in part because Taiwanese are so obedient and conforming. And as a result, the same approach couldn’t be applied in a western context. Frankly, this is laughable. Taiwan has a protest culture and recent history of social activism that puts many countries to shame. 

Taiwanese struggled against the military dictatorship and succeeded. The country went from what was then history’s longest period of martial law to becoming an open democracy. Taiwanese put their lives on the line to bring about societal change, and lives were lost. 

I was here during the Sunflower Movement of 2014 when, in a protest against a trade agreement with China, students stormed parliament and occupied it for more than 20 days. The action was backed up in the streets by half a million citizens. I joined many in sleeping on the street to support the movement. Taiwanese are not submissive or obedient. They’re experienced. 

Then there is the issue of masks. Taiwanese are not hypochondriacs who are terrified of illness. There was a common racist trope in the west prior to the pandemic that people in Asia wore masks because they were terrified of sickness. Actually, it’s the opposite. People here typically wear masks when they are sick to prevent passing the illness onto others. It’s considered common courtesy. Think of it as a more sophisticated approach than coughing into your hand or elbow. 

Watching this pandemic unfold has been a truly surreal experience. When I first learned of the virus, I assumed it was going to be another regional affair. But instead, it has connected me to my birth country in ways I could never have imagined. Suddenly, Taiwan and New Zealand find themselves together in a previously unthought-of select group: countries that have achieved elimination. The two have a lot to offer one another in this unique moment. While we celebrate New Zealand’s success, I urge New Zealanders to not forget the important role of Taiwan.  

Keep going!