How Asia reopened after COVID, #4: Taiwan remains top performer despite loophole threat

With B.C. now looking at a potential slow opening of the economy as soon as mid-May after the COVID-19 outbreak peaks, what may the path forward look like - and what are the potential pitfalls?

As COVID-19 first struck Asia in February, many Asian countries are now dealing with those questions as they are about 1-2 months ahead of the Canadian pandemic timeline. As such, Business in Vancouver is taking a closer look at a number of countries in Asia on how they dealt with the same re-opening questions that’s now facing B.C.

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In some ways, Taiwan is similar to Singapore. Both places were hailed as early examples of how governments should handle the threat of a contagious disease like COVID-19, and both were lauded for keeping initial new daily cases to under 30 for much of February and March.

So when Singapore saw its daily count surge past 1,000 in April due to it overlooking its migrant workers population, observers were equally nervous that a loophole somewhere could ignite a second wave in Taiwan.

That loophole came on April 18, when news broke that a Taiwanese naval ship was allowed to dock in the southern port city of Kaohsiung on April 9 after a visit to Palau, with crew members allowed to disembark on April 15. 

At least 28 of those sailors would test positive for COVID-19, fueling speculation that the military did not report infections on the ship before docking. By the time the sailors were recalled into quarantine on April 18, they have already visited 90 locations in 10 Taiwanese cities, officials said.

“I didn’t know there was this loophole,” said Jerome DuBois, a Vancouver native now living in Kaohsiung with his wife and three children. “Now we know… Everyone -without exception - was supposed to do 14 days home quarantine when returning from overseas, except soldiers.”

But that’s where the similarities with Singapore ends. Whereas Singapore is now firmly in the throes of a second COVID wave, Taiwan saw its daily new cases spike on April 18 with 22 - then saw it drop right back into single digits (2) the next day. For almost an entire week - from April 26 to May 1 - the island did not see a single new COVID case.

In fact, Taiwan - with a population roughly the same size as Australia at 24 million - has a grand total of 440 cases of COVID (and six deaths) since the outbreak began in January despite being situated off the mainland Chinese coast. Australia, for comparison, has 6,896 cases to date and 97 deaths.

“They moved very early and very aggressively,” said Jeff Reeves, vice president of research at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “They imposed travel restrictions from mainland China very quickly, and they instituted very early aggressive contact tracing using technology and smart apps to inform Taiwan citizens about the potential risks if you were in contact with certain people.

“There’s lots of information being pushed out through society.”

The level of public comfort due to the high level of transparency is readily apparent to DuBois, who said Taiwan never shut down. His son and elder daughter go to school like always, he noted, and malls remain open.

“The gyms are still packed,” he added. “We own and operate a small business, and our sales numbers are still pretty close to pre-COVID-19. The main difference is that there are protocols in place that make us feel safe… The combination of mask, temperature checks and hand-sanitizing has become normal almost everywhere.”

Similar to South Korea, Taiwan uses mobile platforms and contact tracing to identify those who are infected and the places they’ve visited, warning and tracking people who are potentially exposed until they are proven to have tested negative. This allowed most places to stay open for the duration of the pandemic - and allowed for a quick, focused response when mini-outbreaks like the navy sailors case happens.

Allowing businesses and restaurants to stay open wasn’t simply an economic consideration, DuBois added; it was a social necessity in a place like Taiwan.

“We don’t have much personal space here,” he said. “Night markets are packed shoulder-to-shoulder, and so are all the malls. Also, the Taiwanese are social by nature, so they are always gathering in large groups. In fact, some of my friends have never even used their kitchen as they always eat out.”

What has proven to be the most effective - ironically because it was derided in the West as unnecessary at best and counterproductive at worst - is the use of face masks. Before the World Health Organization changed its tune in early April (with Canada following suit), experts in North America recommended against the wearing of masks in public.

“Asia never bought into that narrative, and Taiwan had a heavy push to have those face-mask-wearing measures in place,” Reeves said. “There was a very early adaptation to wearing masks in public spaces because that was easy to instill among the population. There was already a culture of people avoiding the potential of infecting others by wearing face masks.”

Such examples may explain why a loophole in Taiwan did not turn into a second COVID wave as it did in Singapore. The buy-in on the national disease-fighting effort was total, DuBois said, so much so that when a face-mask shortage was initially reported in February, no one panicked.

“Since everything was so transparent, we all waited calmly,” he said. “And soon enough we could show our healthcare card and be guaranteed to obtain masks. We are now able to do this at any convenience store, and even at automated mask vending-machines… Any questions we had were always answered.”

As for lifestyle changes post-COVID and fears of second wave, DuBois said the only major shift is the lack of international travel. He added his confidence has not been shaken by the naval ship incident in April.

“I know know holes exist everywhere, but I’m still very confident and feel safe,” DuBois said. “… With transparency, it also ensures efficiency - because when you show all your cards, you better have a good hand!”