My Ridiculously Good Life in Taiwan Amid the Global Pandemic
(Bloomberg Opinion) - I was at Hong Kong International Airport the morning the US reported its first case of the virus from Wuhan, China. There was already news of this deadly new disease in Taiwan, my departure point, and I spent this layover looking for the precautions needed to minimize the risk on my flight to New York.
Masks weren't in stock but I eventually found a small bottle of disinfectant with a cartoon Shiba Inu dog on the label, an irony I'd appreciate later. In the airline lounge, the staff declined my suggestion to provide hand disinfectant to all passengers at the counter. I knew that was going to change.
When I landed at JFK Airport, the Chinese authorities had closed Wuhan to admit that the virus was severe and was spreading. However, this step was far too late. Taiwan had set up its central epidemic command center three days earlier, and three weeks earlier Taipei had sent this now infamous investigation to the World Health Organization asking for clarification on this pneumonia from China. The WHO downplayed Taiwan's email and reiterated Beijing's stance at the time that there was no person-to-person transmission. But now the virus had landed on American shores and was spreading.
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In February, when Beijing tried to rewrite the narrative about the origins of the virus, the WHO named the disease Covid-19 after a recent decision to stop naming human diseases by location or animal.
During my January trip, the masks were sold out across Manhattan, although few were seen on the faces of New Yorkers. This is because the Chinese diaspora bought up stocks to send back to the family. Significantly, it wasn't until the sleepy town of Woodstock 100 miles north on the last weekend in January that I found a shop with a single lonely box of 10 pieces. I bought three, not wanting to be greedy, thinking that would be enough to get me back to Taiwan.
But I didn't want to go back. My trip to Bloomberg's global headquarters was only supposed to be 10 days, and I urged my bosses to let me stay longer. Engraved into my memory was the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak 17 years ago, which featured outbreaks and funerals in Taiwan when health officials botched containment efforts. In my opinion, Taiwan should go back to being a viral hotspot again, while New York, 8,000 miles away, would certainly be a safer choice.
Ten months and an eternity later, we all know how wrong that was.
While cities from New York to London to Melbourne were closed, all of Taiwan remained open to business. For the past few months, I've been participating in music festivals and marathons, swimming in public swimming pools and exercising in fully functional gyms, drinking drinks in crowded bars, and attending banquet nights. Not only did Taipei have two Pride parades this year, but the same event has been canceled in almost every other city in the world.
To be very clear, life in Taiwan that year was ridiculously normal.
The weekend before Christmas, the hotel's ballrooms were busy with weddings while I hooked up with friends for an alumni dinner that ended in a crowded nightclub with masked and smiling partiers dancing cheek to cheek.
I'm typing this on a laptop in a busy Taipei cafe, one of dozen who are fine amid the pandemic. A group of friends sit nearby and chat lively. The only signs of a pandemic are their tell-tale collars and cuffs - masks that are held around the neck or wrist when they are not covering the face.
Bar and restaurant owners have told me that after a slow start in March and April, traffic picked up again in the summer, with some even posting record sales per month. Flights to offshore islands sold out in the middle of the year and it was difficult to find accommodation. Tour operators and five star hotels have not been so lucky and have lost the international travelers who keep their business going.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and the famous Boston Marathon add to a long list of global sporting events that have been canceled. As of December this year, more than 1,500 triathletes took part in southern Pingtung County, and nearly 30,000 took part in the Taipei marathon.
When friends, family and colleagues around the world tore the hair out of their heads because of the stop-start school programs that have adversely affected the education and mental health of the children, Taiwanese classes continued normally. Students will finish on time with lavish celebrations.
Myself and other Taiwanese roommates often discuss the mixed feelings of seeing the world collapse out there while we enjoy life in our happy little bubble. Pride is mitigated by the survivor's feeling of guilt, as if that achievement were our personal doing, when in reality we made the wisest choices to stay there.
In fewer than 800 cases, fewer than 10 people have died. Almost 90% of these patients brought the virus from overseas and were discovered through testing at the border or in quarantine.
While the economy is not immune to Taiwan, GDP will be one of the few this year to see growth with expectations of 2.5% expansion.
Much of the praise for this goes to President Tsai Ing-wen. Though well-deserved, I think her Minister of Health, Chen Shih-chung, is the man who should be on the cover of magazines. For months, the 67-year-old trained dentist held a daily press conference describing each new case, its discovery and the subsequent follow-up.
His popularity soared - with an approval rating of over 91% - that worried citizens wrote letters asking him to take a break to protect his health. On a veritable gangsta train, he and his team held a press conference wearing pink masks after it was reported that male students were not wearing the suit for fear of being bullied. Pink later became the trendiest color covering faces across the country.
Chen's favorite ally in building trust and community was the ministry's official "spokesman", a Shiba Inu named Zongchai, who often adorns social media posts with friendly reminders to wash hands or maintain social distance.
Tsai deserves credit for relying on her cabinet of experts and going out of her way to help them get their jobs done.
And they did. Within a few weeks, mask production was ramped up to allow Taiwan to begin exporting excess supplies. Hygiene tips were given to citizens, cafes and restaurants greeted guests with thermometers and disinfectants, and shops began marking the floors with 1.5-meter guides for social distancing.
While masks were mandatory in public transport, citizens hardly had to be informed. When videos circulated of rebellious Americans denying the most basic precautions on the pretext of freedom, Taiwan shook its head and nodded what real freedom looked like: the chance to have a drink at a bar without fear of a fatal illness in the To have air.
Everyone in Taiwan knows that this privilege was obtained through quick and drastic action.
So great is the sense of duty and camaraderie that when a single local broadcast was announced this week that ended the world's longest infection-free streak (253 days), society reacted en masse as if a national tragedy had occurred.
Early on, when the world was struggling with incomplete information offered by Beijing, Taiwan knew better and restricted entry to passengers from Wuhan. That was later extended to all of China and then to the whole world. Today, the close group that is allowed in, including citizens and permanent residents, must be quarantined and closely monitored for 14 days, under threat of heavy fines.
But such forced isolation hasn't stopped thousands from flooding back - earning them the nickname Covid refugee.
While some of them were driven home by job losses, countless Taiwanese overseas - many with weak ties to their ancestral home - found this pandemic the perfect excuse to discover a place they barely knew. With employees around the world moving from home to work, many thought they might as well move to a place where life went on normally.
Social Groups and Professional Mixers is a weekly event dedicated to the theme of how to promote Taiwan as a new center for technology and business. Applications for the Taiwanese Gold Card work visa, which offers work permits, national health care and favorable tax treatment for so-called "high-profile talent," have skyrocketed.
But the world should also understand that the approach wasn't perfect. For example, quarantine enforcement isn't always fair: a Filipino worker was fined $ 3,500 for stepping out of his quarantine room for 8 seconds, while others were reportedly allowed to walk around more freely.
Tsai herself deserves the legitimate criticism she has received because politics, particularly relations with Western countries, pose a risk to the health of their own citizens. In August, a U.S. delegation led by Alex Azar, the secretary for health and human services, entered Taiwan without meeting quarantine requirements. A month later, more than 80 people, led by the Czech Senate President Miloš Vystrčil, attended meetings in Taipei while avoiding the two-week detention that everyone else faced.
It was only by luck that not a single person among these 100 or so queue jumpers carried Covid-19 and passed it on to a local. Even her most loyal supporters know that if she tried again, fate would tempt her.
But fate is what Taiwan's pandemic is about.
It started 17 years ago with harsh lessons from SARS, has continued in recent years when Beijing Taipei freezes from international organizations such as WHO, and ended with the government learning to assert itself in the diplomatic wilderness where its pleas for health information were rejected.
With the world's most successful Covid story written here, everyone in Taiwan has learned that determination and independence are the perfect immunization against ignoring.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or Bloomberg LP or its owners.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist on technology. He previously worked for Bloomberg News in the technology sector.
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