If you’re looking for a silver lining in the dark cloud that is the COVID-19 outbreak, you might want to consider Taiwan’s extraordinary response to this increasingly dangerous pandemic.
Taiwan’s highly urbanized population of 24 million citizens live about 80 miles from mainland China. Some 1.25 million Taiwanese citizens either live or work on the mainland, and the island-state last year welcomed almost 3 million Chinese visitors.
Taiwan’s government is under siege from Beijing, whose official “one China” policy aims to force unification if peaceful reconciliation fails. Ruthlessly seeking to prevent international recognition of Taiwan, China ruthlessly blocks Taipei’s membership in international bodies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), which officially considers Taiwan a part of China.
Taiwan thus risks missing out on critical health information from WHO since the message must first pass through China’s strict state-sponsored censorship.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not, however, inflicted the same level of devastation to Taiwan as seen in China and many other nations to date.
Through Wednesday, Taiwan had reported just 235 confirmed cases and two reported deaths from COVID-19. On a per capita basis, China’s infection rate is roughly 25 times that of Taiwan.
Taiwan implemented a comprehensive plan created in the aftermath of the SARS epidemic in 2003, fortifying the roof, as the British are fond of saying, when it was sunny. At the first notification that a new virus strain had appeared in China, Taiwan reacted with efficiency and alacrity.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control immediately began monitoring passengers who arrived from Wuhan after the first early January reports. In mid-January, Taiwan health experts traveled to Wuhan to collect information on the virus, and later that month Taiwan became the first country to ban flights from the city at the epicenter of the outbreak.
By mid-March, Taiwan required a 14-day quarantine for everyone arriving from the COVID-19 next major target area — western Europe, Britain and Ireland.
Taiwan significantly improved its health infrastructure after 73 deaths from the SARS outbreak, creating a National Health Command Center and installing temperature monitors in airports to screen travelers for fever.
Taiwan’s response has been a veritable panoply of best practices, including information-sharing, interagency cooperation and coordination between government labs and hospitals. Taiwan allocated billions of dollars to fund containment efforts, border control, the manufacture of critical medical equipment and other priorities
Vice President Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist by training, has played a critical role. His tenure as health minister during the SARS epidemic gave him vital first-hand experience managing the government’s quarantine and screening procedures. Taiwan integrated its national health insurance database with immigration and customs to support “big data” analytics.
While policymakers rightly criticize China’s abject initial response to COVID-19, Taiwan operated effectively on the front lines — despite a state-controlled media disinformation campaign from Beijing and China’s failure to share crucial information on a looming health crisis.
Having learned the lesson from China concealing the 2003 SARS outbreak for months, Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus outbreak epitomized Sun Tzu’s insight in “The Art of War”: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
Even more impressive is the fact that Taiwan dealt with the COVID-19 challenge in the midst of national elections Jan. 11. That President Tsai Ing-wen’s government took determined action during a hard-fought election cycle is a fine advertisement for the strengths of democratic rule in a crisis.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.