As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire across the globe, a small state just over 1,000 kilometers from the epicenter of Wuhan, China remained predominantly safe. Taiwan, politically autonomous but regarded by China as a rebel territory, has combated COVID-19 better than any country on the planet. The island-state installed protections and took precautions prior to any other nation and has seen an extraordinarily low number of coronavirus cases, despite its proximity to China. Taiwan has recorded fewer than 500 cases of the virus, and only six deaths from its population of 23 million. Making this feat even more impressive, Taiwan’s population density is 649 people per square kilometer, meaning close person-to-person contact is common. Taiwan’s response to the outbreak of the coronavirus was based upon the government taking preemptive measures and conclusions based on fact-based information, independent from China.
Taiwan and China have had rocky relations since the Chinese Communist Party won China’s civil war in 1949 and the defeated nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan and set up a provincial government. Beijing has always regarded Taiwan as an inalienable part of China and considers the island to be similar to Hong Kong and Macau in falling under the “Two Systems, One Country” mantra. This was affirmed in the 1992 Consensus signed by representatives of Beijing and Taiwan’s ruling political party, the Kuomintang. The agreement stated that there was only “One China,” but that it was acceptable for Taipei to interpret the meaning of this differently from Beijing. Also included in the consensus was a tacit agreement that Taiwan would not seek independence from China.
The 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Taiwan resulted in a fatality rate of 27%, which forced Taipei to significantly increase its capacity to handle viral outbreaks, including mandating that all hospitals on the island be equipped with a month’s worth of emergency medical equipment. Nearly twenty years later, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, the widely used Johns Hopkins University model predicted that Taiwan would have the second highest rate of infection due to its proximity to China. However, measures taken by the Taiwanese government has prevented this, and led to Taiwan having one of the smallest outbreaks of COVID-19.
As news of the coronavirus began circulating on social media, Taiwan did not believe the statements on the virus coming from Beijing or the World Health Organization, not trusting that the information would be accurate. To verify the veracity of these assessments, Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control sent a team of medical professionals to Wuhan to monitor the situation. Taiwan used facts discerned from individuals on the ground to get an accurate indication of the severity of COVID-19. As a result of this, the Taiwanese government learned the outbreak was much worse than Beijing was letting on and took immediate precautions. Taiwan became the first state to enact a strict quarantine, and has also been at the forefront of testing for the virus.
As part of Taiwan’s quarantine, all individuals entering the island are tested at their port of arrival. Any person who had exhibited symptoms in a two-week period prior to their arrival would also be subject to secondary and tertiary testing for the virus as required. All new arrivals and residents of Taiwan were mandated to download smartphone applications to input symptoms if and when they arose, and Taiwan’s centralized command center personally followed up with people who reported symptoms. Representatives from Taiwan’s CDC also delivered a two-week supply of protective masks to individuals who displayed symptoms, and who may have been in contact with an infected person. As a result of Taiwan’s exhaustive testing, the authorities were able to identify cases early and ensure that the virus didn’t spread through an infected individual’s social network. This has directly correlated to Taiwan’s low rate of infection, and low death toll. Also equating to this, are the preemptive measures that the Taiwanese authorities took. Taiwan was the first place in the world to establish a centralized command center to deal with the virus, and one of the first to establish quarantine and lockdown procedures. In fact, Taiwan initiated its emergency protocols a day before China’s Hubei province did, despite the providence being the epicenter of the virus.
Taiwan’s success in fighting COVID-19 would seemingly put it at the front of the queue to assist other countries through international organizations such as the World Health Organization. However, China has blocked Taiwan’s access and admission to these international bodies, under the premise that Taiwan is a Chinese territory and not a sovereign state. As a result of this, Taiwan was barred from sending representatives to a January meeting attended by the United States, Japan, South Korea, and others, in which the countries agreed to downplay the threat of the virus by not declaring it a global emergency. At this point, Taiwan was already far ahead of China in dealing with the virus, and would have been in a position to share vital information with the rest of the world. Instead, China downplayed the severity of the virus, and thousands around the world died while countries refused to ramp up testing and other preemptive measures that Taiwan had been aggressively advocating for.
Despite being alienated from the international community by China, Taiwan has refused to turn its back on the rest of the world. President Tsai Ing-Wen announced that her government would be donating over 10 million surplus masks that the country no longer needed to keep in reserve. Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry followed up by saying that the masks would be donated first to the countries hit hardest by the virus, with the remainder going to nations who maintain independent diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Seven million masks would go to Europe, while an additional two million would be heading to the United States. The Taiwanese government initially banned the export of masks when the virus was first starting to spread, but its preventative measures were so successful that they now have a large surplus.
The outreach by Taiwan’s government could also play a large role in determining the future outlook of the island. Tsai Ing-Wen won Taiwan’s presidency on a platform of democracy and increased freedom from China. The international community, with the United States as the principle, should not forget Taiwan’s assistance in fighting the virus, and should stand by Taiwan against China’s aggression and political games. Allowing Taiwan to join the World Health Organization and other international organizations should be of the highest priority for the United States and its allies moving forward. In the face of a crisis as severe as the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has proven to be a capable and important member of the international community, and it should be treated as such.