Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 23 December 2020



My Ridiculously Good Life in Taiwan Amid the Global Pandemic

As the world went into meltdown, life has been good in the happy little bubble that is Taiwan.

Taipei skyline
Taipei skyline Photographer: Carl Court/Getty Images

I was at Hong Kong international airport the morning the U.S. reported its first case of the virus out of Wuhan, China. News had already been circulating about this deadly new illness in Taiwan, my point of departure, and I spent that layover rushing around looking for the provisions needed to minimize the risk on my flight to New York.

Masks were out of stock but I eventually found a small bottle of sanitizer with a cartoon Shiba Inu dog on the label, an irony I’d later appreciate. At the airline lounge, staff were dismissive of my suggestion that hand sanitizer be made available at the counter to all passengers. I knew that would change.

By the time I landed at JFK airport, Chinese authorities had shut down Wuhan in an admission that this virus was serious and spreading. Yet that move was far too late. Three days earlier Taiwan had already set up its Central Epidemic Command Center, and three weeks prior Taipei sent that now-infamous inquiry to the World Health Organization asking for clarification of this pneumonia-like disease out of China. The WHO downplayed Taiwan’s email and repeated Beijing’s then-stance that there was no human-to-human transmission. But now the virus had landed on American shores and was spreading.

In February, as Beijing sought to rewrite the narrative about the origins of the virus, the WHO would call the disease Covid-19 following a recent policy to stop naming human illnesses after places or animals.

In the meantime, during my trip in January, masks were sold out throughout Manhattan though few could be seen on the faces of New Yorkers, a divergence explained by the Chinese diaspora buying up stockpiles to send back to family. Tellingly, it was only in the sleepy town of Woodstock 100 miles north on the last weekend of January that I found a store with a single lonely box of 10. I bought three, not wanting to be greedy, and figured that’d be enough to get me back to Taiwan. 

But I didn’t want to go back. My trip to Bloomberg’s global HQ was meant to be only 10 days, and I urged my bosses to let me stay longer. Etched in my memory was the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, outbreak 17 years earlier where I reported on outbreaks and funerals in Taiwan as health authorities bungled containment efforts. To my mind, Taiwan was set to again become a viral hotspot while New York 8,000 miles away would surely be a safer bet. 

Ten months and an eternity later we all know how wrong that was.

While cities from New York to London to Melbourne went into shutdown, the entirety of Taiwan stayed open for business. In the past few months I’ve joined music festivals and marathons, swum in public pools and worked out at fully-functioning gymnasiums, had drinks at packed bars and attended banquet dinners. Not one but two Pride parades were held this year in Taipei while the same event was cancelled in almost every other city around the world.

To put it bluntly, life in Taiwan this year has been ridiculously normal. 

In the weekend before Christmas, hotel ballrooms were busy with weddings while I joined friends at an alumni dinner that ended at a crowded nightclub where partygoers, masks off and smiles on, danced cheek by jowl.  

I’m writing this on a laptop in a busy Taipei cafe, one of dozens doing well amid the pandemic. A group of friends sit nearby chatting animatedly, the only sign of a pandemic being their telltale covid collars and cuffs — masks kept around the neck or wrist when not covering the face.

Bar and restaurant owners have told me that after a slow start in March and April, traffic started to pick up over the summer with some even posting record monthly revenue. Flights to offshore islands were sold out through the middle of the year and accommodation was hard to find. Tour operators and five-star hotels haven’t been so lucky, losing out on the international travelers that sustain their business.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the world Ironman Championships in Hawaii, and the famed Boston Marathon add to a long list of global sporting events that have been cancelled. By contrast, more than 1,500 triathletes competed in southern Pingtung county this December and almost 30,000 joined the Taipei City marathon.

As friends, family and colleagues around the world tore their hair out over the stop-start school programs that have disrupted children’s education and mental health, Taiwanese classes continued as normal. Students will graduate on time with lavish celebrations.

Myself and fellow Taiwan residents often discuss the mixed emotions of watching the world out there go into meltdown while we enjoy life here in our happy little bubble. Pride is tempered by a sense of survivor’s guilt, as if this success was our personal doing when in reality the most savvy thing we did was choosing to stay put.

Less than 10 lives have been lost from fewer than 800 cases. Almost 90% of those patients brought the virus from overseas and were discovered through tests at the border or in quarantine.

While the economy isn’t immune Taiwan GDP will be one of the few this year to post growth with expectations of a 2.5% expansion.

Receiving much of the plaudits for this is President Tsai Ing-wen. While well-deserved, I think that her health minister Chen Shih-chung is the man who ought to grace the cover of magazines. For months, the 67 year old dentist-by-training fronted a daily press conference detailing each new case, how it was discovered, and the contact-tracing that followed. 

His popularity rose so high — with an approval rating which topped 91% — that concerned citizens wrote letters urging him to take a break in order to protect his health. In a veritable gangsta move, he and his team fronted a press conference wearing pink masks after reports that male students wouldn’t wear the color out of fear they’d be bullied. Pink subsequently became the hippest color covering faces across the country.

Chen’s most popular ally in building trust and a sense of community has been the ministry’s official “spokesdog,” a Shiba Inu named Zongchai, who often graces social media posts with friendly reminders to wash hands or maintain social distancing.  

Where Tsai does deserve credit is in relying on her cabinet of experts, and getting out of the way so they can do their job.

And do it they did. In a matter of weeks mask production was ramped up to the point Taiwan could start exporting excess supplies. Citizens were issued hygiene tips, cafes and restaurants greeted guests with thermometers and sanitizer, and shops started marking the floors with 1.5 meter social distancing guides.

While masks were made mandatory on public transport, citizens barely needed to be told. As videos circulated of rebellious Americans refusing the most basic of precautions under the pretense of freedom, Taiwan shook its collective head and nodded at what real freedom looked like: the ability to have a drink at a bar without fear of catching a deadly airborne illness.

Everyone in Taiwan understands this privilege was earned through quick and drastic action.

Such is the sense of duty and camaraderie that when a single local transmission was announced this week, ending the world’s longest-running infection-free streak (253 days), society reacted en masse as if a national tragedy had befallen.  

Early on, as the world dilly-dallied under incomplete information proffered by Beijing, Taiwan knew better and restricted entry for passengers from Wuhan. That was later widened to all of China, and then the entire world. Today, the narrow group who are allowed in, including citizens and permanent residents, are required to quarantine for 14 days under the threat of heavy fines and subjected to strict monitoring. 

But such forced isolation hasn’t stopped thousands from flooding back — earning them the moniker Covid refugee.

While some of those were driven home through job losses, countless overseas Taiwanese — many with only tenuous links to their ancestral homeland —  found this pandemic to be the perfect excuse to discover a place they barely knew. Since employees around the global had switched to work from home regimes, many figured that they may as well shift to a place where life continued as normal.

Social groups and professional mixers are a weekly event, centering around the topic of how to promote Taiwan as a new hub of tech and business. Applications for Taiwan’s Gold Card employment visa — which offers a work permit, national health care, and favorable tax treatment for so-called “high level talent” — shot up. 

But the world should also understand that the approach hasn’t been perfect. Quarantine enforcement, for example, isn’t always fair: one Filipino worker was fined $3,500 for stepping outside his quarantine room for 8 seconds, while others are reported to have been allowed to roam more freely.

Tsai herself deserves the legitimate criticism she received for letting politics, especially relations with Western countries, pose a risk to the health of her own citizens. In August, a U.S. delegation led by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar entered Taiwan without meeting quarantine requirements. Then a month later, more than 80 people headed by Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil attended gatherings in Taipei while also being allowed to bypass the two week confinement everyone else faced.

It’s only through good luck that not a single person among those 100 or so queue-jumpers carried Covid-19 and passed it on to a local. Even her most loyal supporters know she’d be tempting fate by trying it again.

But fate is what Taiwan’s pandemic story is all about.

It started 17 years ago with tough lessons from SARS, continued in recent years with Beijing freezing Taipei out of international organizations such as the WHO, and ends with the government learning to fend for itself in the diplomatic wilderness where its pleas for health information were dismissed.

With the world’s most successful Covid story being written right here, everyone in Taiwan has learnt that being resolute and independent is the perfect immunization against being ignored.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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