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11 March 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:44pm

Postcards from an infected world: In Taiwan, we are learning that the best way to fight coronavirus is with trust

When coronavirus erupted, many predicted Taiwan would be among the worst-hit nations. But thanks to the government's fast reactions disaster seems to have been avoided – and public confidence restored.

By Erin Hale

The mood in Taipei has lifted considerably since coronavirus first broke out over the Lunar New Year holiday in late January. Pundits were predicting that Taiwan would be one of the hardest-hit places beyond China, based on its past experience with the Sars virus outbreak in 2002-03 – when 150,000 were quarantined – but we appear to have turned a corner. 

These days, more people wear masks than they did before the holiday – particularly on public transport – but at the weekends there is a clear sense of life going on as normal. It’s very common to see people gathering in the park to have a picnic, shopping, visiting a hot spring hotel (a popular winter activity) or even eating at one of Taipei’s many crowded night markets. Following a two-week delay to the start of the spring term, schools and universities reopened at the end of February.

One noticeable difference since the virus’s outbreak is that you are now required to have your temperature checked and your hands sprayed with alcohol at the entrances to many buildings. Another change is that the number of tourists,  particularly tour groups from China, is visibly reduced.

“The hotel industry is suffering,” says Kathy Cheng, a writer and consultant who recently surveyed the impact of coronavirus on businesses for her popular blog Tricky Taipei. Cheng found many hotels with less than ten per cent of rooms occupied, while walking tours and other excursions were struggling with large numbers of cancellations.

At the same time, Cheng said local businesses that cater to Taiwanese people – particularly the young – are doing quite well. On Friday and Saturday nights, bars and restaurants remain packed with local clients, most of whom forego face masks to drink immaculately prepared coffees or sip on a Taiwanese beer. 

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Cheng sees this as “a reflection of the trust in what the government is doing” and a broader trust in the community. “People are being very responsible. If you are feeling sick, people trust that you are going to stay home – and you trust people are going to do the same.”

This mood contrasts sharply from the first days of the virus. Then, William Yang, a Taiwanese journalist, witnessed what have since become global reactions to the virus: panic buying at the supermarket and queues outside pharmacies for surgical masks. 

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“Masks and disinfectant quickly went out of stock. There was also a very high sense of urgency among the general public that they need to reduce the risk of being exposed to the virus as much as they could. A lot of the families cancelled their [Lunar] New Year trips abroad,” he told me. His family spent much of the holiday at home. 

President Tsai Ing-wen’s second-in-command, Chen Chien-jen, is a highly experienced epidemiologist. He has been praised for his role as minister of health during the Sars epidemic and for his efforts in preventing African swine fever – a disease that has over the past year ravaged China’s pork industry – from taking hold in Taiwan. 

The speed at which the government imposed travel restrictions and rationed face masks was at first slightly terrifying – especially when Taiwan was sent the equivalent of an earthquake warning about the movements of someone with coronavirus. But in the end, these were all the things that restored public confidence. 

“Now, Taiwan is quite relaxed,” says William Yang. “Society now has a very high level of confidence in the government’s ability to actually control this.”

Read the rest of “postcards from an infected world” series here

This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down