How Taiwan handled the COVID-19 epidemic

As one country whose economy is closely entwined with mainland China, Taiwan was expected to take a major hit from COVID-19, but it appears the Taiwanese authorities’ response has been exemplary, resulting in a small number of infections (45 as of March 6) and only a single death so far.

Almost a million Taiwanese live in mainland China and close to 3 million Chinese a year visit Taiwan. China accounts for 23.9% of trade with Taiwan.

This report makes for fascinating reading on how quickly and efficiently the government dealt with the emergency:
Response to COVID-19 in Taiwan: Big Data Analytics, New Technology, and Proactive Testing

It helps to have competent people in charge:

In addition to daily press briefings by the minister of health and welfare the CECC, the vice president of Taiwan, a prominent epidemiologist, gave regular public service announcements broadcast from the office of the president and made available via the internet. These announcements included when and where to wear a mask, the importance of handwashing, and the danger of hoarding masks to prevent them from becoming unavailable to frontline health workers. The CECC also made plans to assist schools, businesses, and furloughed workers.

Many other countries could learn from Taiwan’s common-sense approach, yet the WHO does not even provide Taiwan with any information on the worldwide epidemic or allow its representatives to attend its conferences. That’s because the People’s Republic of China, a UN and WHO member, claims Taiwan as one of its provinces. The WHO expects Taiwan to receive all information from Beijing and report its findings that way too.

In the March 6, 2020 WHO Situation Report (PDF), the WHO lists Taiwan under “Taipei and environs” in a table on “Confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 acute respiratory disease reported by provinces, regions and cities in China”. Interestingly, all but three of the provinces listed there have far higher number of infections and those three have but a fraction of the population of Taiwan (e.g. Macao SAR has only 3% of the population but 22% of the number of infections of Taiwan; Hongkong SAR has 231% of the infections of Taiwan but only 32% of the population). Though it probably helps that Taiwan doesn’t have a land border with mainland China, it also has fewer infections than far away countries such as Norway or Spain that are 8 time zones away from China.

On March 1, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) removed Taiwan from its list of countries with community spread of COVID-19.

What about COVID-19 in Turkey?

In stark contrast with the openness of the government in Taiwan, there has so far not been a single officially confirmed case in Turkey, which beggars belief considering that the WHO lists 15 countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region with COVID-19, including over 3500 confirmed cases and over 100 deaths in next-door Iran.

Turkey claims to have tested 940 individuals with symptoms by March 3 but that every one of them tested negative. The same day, a passenger on a Turkish Airlines flight to Singapore tested positive for COVID-19. It was a French Citizen transiting through Istanbul from Europe. By March 5, Turkey claims to have tested 1,363 persons, still all negative. Turkey claims to have developed its own corona virus test.

Closing the land borders to Iran and Iraq as happened on February 23 could be like shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Also, almost 300,000 Chinese tourists visited Turkey in the first eight months of 2019 alone. And therein may lie the rub: The Turkish economy is highly dependent on tourism. If Turkey were to share Italy’s fate with hundreds of counted cases, it would deal a heavy blow to an important source of foreign currency and employment, which would weaken President Erdo─čan’s grip on power.

But if infections have been spreading in Turkey, which I suspect is highly likely, it will not be possible to hush it up forever. Viruses don’t tend to respect authoritarian politicians’ sensibilities.