Navigating COVID-19: Lessons From Taiwan

Life in Taiwan seems relatively normal given the current circumstances of the global pandemic — the hustle and bustle of daily life continues. Restaurants are still open for business, citizens are still commuting to work, and people are still out and about, albeit everyone is now wearing face masks. Taiwan has been lauded by the international community for its quick and effective response to COVID-19, a reason why society has remained open (as of writing this article, June 3rd, Taiwan’s case count remains at 443 confirmed cases with 0 local transmissions in the past 52 days).

(Source: Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare)

How did Taiwan, geographically located 81 miles off the coast of Mainland China and expected to have the second highest number of cases, limit the spread of coronavirus and keep society safe? In a webinar series held by AAMA Silicon Valley titled “Post-Pandemic Future: Lessons from Asia,” SparkLabs Taipei Managing Partner Edgar Chiu breaks down insights into why Taiwan was so effective in its response:

  1. Taiwan’s early assessment and proactive agile response

  2. Leveraging modern technology to fight the virus

  3. Effective communication with the general public to build trust

  4. Government-led production of necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) resources

Before diving into these insights, let’s quickly review the timeline of some key actions taken by Taiwan:

(Infographic made by SparkLabs Taipei)

Taiwan’s Early Assessment and Proactive Agile Response

On December 31st, chatter about a mysterious novel pneumonia-like virus circulating Wuhan surfaced on PTT, one of Taiwan’s largest internet public forums. Taiwan’s Center of Diseases Control (CDC) deputy chief Lo Yi-chun (羅一鈞) happened to be scrolling PTT when this chatter appeared, and it caught his attention. The post included a chest CT scan, hospital test results, and a screenshot of a warning message sent by a doctor in Wuhan. Within hours of stumbling upon the PTT post, CDC sent an email to WHO to verify the emergence of this novel virus; Taiwanese officials also began to inspect all incoming passengers from Wuhan the very next day on January 1, 2020.

Within two weeks, Taiwan sent a team of medical experts to Wuhan to investigate the outbreak and gather more comprehensive information about the virus in order to better understand the situation. By January 20, 2020, Taiwan activated its Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), an agency under the National Health Command Center with the authority to coordinate across government departments during public health emergencies. Between January 20 and February 24, the CECC implemented at least 124 action items, from border control, travel restrictions, and contact tracing of diagnosed patients, to resource allocation and communication guidelines.

According to Taiwan’s Vice Premier Chen Chi-mai, Taiwan was “the earliest country to activate epidemic prevention measures against this disease.” Taiwan’s prudent action, ready response, and early proactive deployment of resources are reasons why it has been successful at keeping society safe.

Leveraging Modern Technology to Fight the Virus

Taiwan adopted modern smart technology such as big data analytics, contact tracing, digital fences, and other community-led technology initiatives to combat and curb the spread of coronavirus.

Taiwan integrates data from the National Health Insurance Agency and National Immigration Agency to create big data for analytics.

Within one day, Taiwan was able to integrate data from both the National Health Insurance Agency and the National Immigration Agency to create big data for analytics. This allowed for real-time alerts based on travel history and clinical symptoms when patients visited the doctor — if patients had any pneumonia-like symptoms and had recently traveled to a high-alert country within the past 14 days, the doctor would get notified that the patient was high-risk.

Contact tracing quickly identifies and tests high-risk individuals.

Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) used epidemiological investigation and an electronic tracing system called the “Infectious Disease Contact Tracing Platform and Management System” to monitor the health of coronavirus-positive individuals and trace those they came into close contact with.

For example, when Taiwan’s 24th case of coronavirus was confirmed, the CECC was able to quickly identify and test 465 people that had contact with the patient.

(Contact tracing graphic. Source: CNA)

Taiwan implements an electronic tracking system for quarantined individuals dubbed the “digital fence.”

On January 29th, Taiwan implemented an electronic monitoring system that is described as a “digital fence” for all individuals undergoing home quarantines. Working with several major telecommunication companies and other technology companies, the system is able to use cellular triangulation to track the location of the mobile devices of those under quarantine. Authorities will receive notifications if quarantined individuals step out of their homes. Society has been able to function normally because it trusts the government is taking all the necessary steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Examples of other community-led technological initiatives.

Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang (唐鳳) has been commended for efforts in providing digital information and other digital tools to keep citizens up to date on latest coronavirus updates, including a real-time map of face mask supplies at pharmacies across the country. In an interview with The News Lens, Tang commented “my involvement was to collect community ideas primarily and draft the very first stage of the website…I’ve received a lot of support from friends in the local community.”

Tang was also instrumental in creating citywide alerts for citizens to notify them of high-risk areas that were visited by passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

In a recent online livestream, Tang also shared more about Taiwan’s Digital Social Innovation strategy, and how there are over 100+ tools developed by engineers from the community to help combat coronavirus.

(The Google map provided through text messages to warn high-risk areas visited by passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. Source: Screenshot of Google Maps)

Government’s Effective Communication with the General Public Builds Trust and Confidence

The CECC started to hold daily live-streamed press conferences to give updates on the status and situation of the coronavirus pandemic and answer any questions from journalists since January 23, 2020. This helps identify and clarify any misinformation and disinformation while keeping the general public up to date on facts. Actually, this daily press conference is still ongoing today! Furthermore, anyone can call the CECC to offer information, give new ideas, or ask for support.

When reports surfaced of a boy who was bullied and teased for wearing a pink mask to school, CECC head Chen Shih-Chung (陳時中) along with other CECC officials wore pink masks during their April 13 press conference to fight against gender discrimination and show that “pink is for everyone.”