Elizabeth Shaw

The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated Taiwan’s visibility on the world stage. Its fast response times, open communication, and public trust have led other countries look towards mimicking Taiwan’s unique model of combatting the virus, which as of June has resulted in fewer than 500 cases and seven deaths. Under President Tsai Ing-wen, the government never implemented a full national lockdown. Instead, well-enforced social distancing measures and a two-week delay before reopening workplace and schools characterised its early stages of outbreak response. As the spread of COVID declines on the island, the federal Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) is easing restrictions on social gatherings and domestic travel.

Taiwan’s distinguished response to large-scale outbreaks can be attributed to its history of centralized public health institutions. In the 1990s, it established its first universal national health insurance (NHI) system. Hailed as its “most celebrated social policy reform,” the NHI provides people with equal access to healthcare coverage. Lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak in Taiwan resulted in the establishment of the Center for Disease Control (CDC). As a federal institution, the CDC directly communicates with central, regional, and local authorities when a large disease outbreak occurs. It also has jurisdiction over the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) that enacted the emergency powers seen in its COVID-19 response.

Strict travel restrictions against people travelling from the region of the virus’s origin allowed Taiwan to contain and treat its cases quickly. On 31 December, Taiwan began screening passengers from Wuhan at the airport. The day after activating the CECC on 21 January, it confirmed its first case imported from Wuhan. By 26 January, the country restricted the entry of all Chinese tourists, and this was soon expanded to all incoming flights from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). High-risk people, including anyone arriving from overseas, had to undergo strict quarantines monitored by mandatory “digital fencing,” whereby the government tracks cell phone locations to ensure no one breaks their quarantine. Travelers arriving at the airport can scan mobile codes to declare their recent health and travel history as soon as they land. Likewise, the NHI and national immigration agencies integrate patients’ travel histories of up to the last three months using their NHI identification cards.

As for domestic policies, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration prioritized clear and transparent communication from the start. Minister of Health and Welfare Chin Shih-chung heads the CECC and holds regular press conferences dedicated to health and public safety, covering health facts, border controls, and workplace and school restrictions. Given the low number of cases in Taiwan, Chen’s press releases have recently been reduced from once a day to once a week. There are public service announcements on broadcast and social media, in addition to communications from the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s website and telephone hotline. The first 100 days the CECC was open, it tested over 60,000 people with only 429 cases confirmed. Due to the low infection rate, Chen announced that there was “no need” for mass testing.

Through transparent and accountable governance, Taiwan’s economy is experiencing growth—this is a feat given that few other countries can presently say the same. Citizens post feedback and suggestions on a public forum called vTaiwan for tracking cases and alternative methods of pandemic response. Because the fight against COVID has been constructed as a participatory process, people’s trust in the government’s ability to take action is high. The government can then make policy decisions based on the feedback, differentiating its approach from “top-down” authoritarian states such as Singapore or the PRC. Under Tsai’s cabinet, the Executive Yuan announced in April a NTD 150 billion (USD 4.98 billion) special budget that entails economic stimulus, including small business and worker relief, a national health response, and COVID-19 recovery efforts. In spite of the pandemic, Taiwan’s key industry of electronics exports is anticipated to grow by 2 percent in 2020. Exports increased by 4.3 percent from 2019 and electronic product exports are up 24 percent.

Despite these successes, analysts anticipate that structural inequalities among at-risk groups may cause issues later on. April’s Navy cluster outbreak led many to voice concerns about potential hotspots, especially in close-contact dormitories. Some say that Taiwan’s temporary migrant workers may meet the same fate as those in Singapore: crowded work and living conditions and wider societal barriers, if unchecked, could pose a problem. Although foreign workers in Taiwan hold an Alien Resident Card (ARC) that grants them access to health care, many have reported that harsh restrictions from employers prevent them from physically distancing or accessing testing and proper protective equipment. Taiwan does not grant amnesty to undocumented workers who get tested for COVID, unlike South Korea, which enacted this policy in January.

Taiwan’s success may boost its work to differentiate itself from its neighbour, the People’s Republic of China. Bolstered by President Tsai Ing-wen’s noteworthy approach, Taiwanese identity continues to be reinforced as unique and separate from the mainland. Global recognition for the “Taiwan model’s” response to COVID-19 may lead to meaningful implications for the country’s future role in regional geopolitics.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.