How did Taiwan prevent a major COVID-19 outbreak?

Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2020 06:17 PM

Commuters wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) during morning rush hour traffic in Taipei, Taiwan, April 8, 2020. Ann Wang, Reuters

MANILA - Swift and decisive action led to a low number of COVID-19 cases and low risk of community transmission in Taiwan, Taiwanese health experts said in a virtual forum Friday.

Dr. Mei-Shang Ho, president of the Taiwan Health Corporation, said early action in border control helped contain the spread of the virus.

Taiwan on Jan. 25 and 26 started to impose a ban on non-essential travel and direct flights to and from Wuhan, just days after the first case of COVID-19 from the Chinese city was diagnosed on January 21. The virus was known to have originated from a market selling wild animals as delicacies there.

This, Ho said, actually deviated from the World Health Organization’s recommendation against imposing a travel ban.

As of April 24, there were 428 confirmed cases in Taiwan with 264 recoveries and 6 deaths, according to the Taiwan Centers for Disease and Control. The figure was relatively low compared to the infection rate in the region, where tens of thousands have been infected. 

Taiwan had also canceled the International Book Fair supposed to be held from Feb. 2 to 9, stopping the influx of a large number of international travelers hoping to attend the major event.

“That was very, very early. This is a big event for Taiwan. Thousands of international travelers would come. The readers, the authors would come to meet the readers. It’s really a happy event but we have to cancel that. Very thankfully, we cancelled. You can see how early it was at that time. And of course, there was a series of travel bans,” Ho said.

On Feb. 6, Taiwan prohibited the entry of all Chinese citizens from China and prohibited the docking of cruise ship. On Feb. 7, it banned the entry of anyone who had traveled to China in the past 14 days and stopped all flights to China except for 5 airports on Feb. 10. 

On March 18, all inbound travelers regardless of nationality were required to undergo a 14-day quarantine but were given 1,000 NT or US$35 worth as daily compensation.

Aggressive contact tracing and quarantine, digital tracking of locations, sufficient number of investigators comprising central and local government employees, and compensation also helped. 

Ho added that transparency is also important and building trust, citing daily briefings to keep the public informed, use of digital platforms to counter fake news, misinformation and disinformation, and tough penalties for dissemination of fake news or disinformation on the epidemic.

There were also very early public information campaigns on the importance of hand washing, droplet transmission and the proper time to wear masks.

Taiwan also prohibited the export of surgical masks, with government giving grants to private firms to increase production capacity, its requisition of all domestically produced masks which were sold at a set price, and rationing the supply in a fair manner.

As cases there subsided, Taiwan later began sending medical supplies to other countries. 

Saying the pandemic will be long-lasting in the absence of a vaccine, Ho spoke of the importance of quick and accurate diagnostics, and repurposing the use of anti-viral drugs while research and development for a vaccine proceeds “in an unprecedented speed.”

Ho recommended that people follow physical distancing guidelines, eat healthy, be active and be grateful while waiting for immunization.

Meanwhile, ambassador Tai-chu Chou, spokesperson of the Taipei City Government, cited Taiwan’s strict internal controls with village chiefs who were tapped to monitor residents' strict compliance with home quarantine measures and lessons learned from the experience with SARS, which struck in 2003. 

Taipei City’s “creative measures” include the daily disinfection of stations and carriages of the subway system, remote learning for schools, and effective home quarantine management.

“In 2003, we suffered from [SARS]. We paid a heavy price. This explains why this time when coronavirus happened in Wuhan, China early this year, our government had a very swift and effective measure to contain the virus,” Chou said.

The Taiwanese health experts shared Taiwan’s approach in fighting COVID-19 in a forum organized by the COVID-19 Academic Crisis Response Consortium made up of AIM Stephen Zuellig School of Development Management, the Ateneo Professional Schools, and the De La Salle University Jesse M. Robredo Institute of Governance.