Hsiao: Taiwan has been quicker than the WHO in fighting the coronavirus

Success against the infection will improve the international image of the "rebel province". When the virus first appeared in Wuhan, Taiwan immediately imposed health controls and closed the borders with China. It put to good use the lessons it learnt from the SARS crisis. Citizens have been widely informed about how to stop the contagion. Doubts remain about its possible membership in the WHO.

Taipei (AsiaNews) – Taiwan did not wait for the World Health Organisation’s “instructions to shape its response” and dealt promptly with the coronavirus crisis, this according to Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, who spoke to AsiaNews. This is the secret of the success of the "rebel province" in fighting the epidemic. So far, only 135 cases of infection and two deaths have been reported in the country. This is a paradox considering Taiwan’s attempts to join the WHO have been systematically thwarted by mainland China. Hsiao’s interview follows.

Whilst the COVID-19 is killing thousands of people in China and around the world, Taiwan has been successful at containing the outbreak.

For Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, the secret of Taiwan’s success is the fact that “Taiwan did not have the luxury of waiting for the international health body’s instructions to shape its response – and this perhaps helped in a paradoxical way to encourage the government’s proactive approach.”

Considered a breakaway province by mainland China, the de facto independent island has reported so far only 135 cases of infection and two deaths. In early February, when the epidemic began outside of China, Taiwan had 16 cases. Local authorities began to fear that that the numbers would increase over the coming two weeks from imported cases.  

According to Hsiao, the international community can draw important lessons from the Taiwan’s response to the outbreak, especially in future pandemics. “When signs of an epidemic began appearing within China, Taipei was quick to pick up on those cues and implemented health screening of visitors from Wuhan and then closed its borders to the rest of China early on.”

In the early stages of the crisis, Taiwan introduced some restrictions on travel to and from with Hong Kong and Macau as well, believing they were potential sources of contagion. It also used effectively what it learnt from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, which had been costly in terms of human lives.

For Hsiao, who is adjunct fellow at the Pacific Forum, “Taiwan’s experience with previous pandemics, such as SARS and avian flu” led to a quick “government response that included a domestic public education campaign with daily press conferences to ensure a well-informed public.”

This campaign was essential to prepare Taiwanese society and is the "backbone" of a careful public response. “In the era of viral pandemics, a well-informed public is all the more critical to mitigate the effects of a pandemic,” Hsiao explained.

Unlike Taiwan, China has been criticised – inside and outside the country – for putting a gag on information, which many believe favoured the spread of the lung infection.

In Hsiao’s opinion, Taiwan's success in coping with the coronavirus has improved its image internationally. The United States has decided to launch a partnership with Taiwan to share the good practices adopted against COVID-19, a relationship other countries could adopt.

However, “Whether greater public awareness will translate to an increased number of governments supporting Taiwan’s inclusion into the WHO remains to be seen.”

At the start of the crisis, the administration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen had accused the WHO of providing "inaccurate" information on the spread of the epidemic. In the UN agency’s first reports, Taiwan was presented as a part of China, which prompted countries like Italy and Vietnam to suspend air links to the island.