Taiwan announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on January 21 – a day after the United States confirmed theirs. Since then, the island nation has reported fewer than 600 cases and just seven deaths. Shops, cinemas, bars and clubs are open and the level of worry among the public is at a minimum. Daily life in Taiwan is a glimpse into the future: a “post-COVID” world in which precautions are still taken, but the fear of catching the virus, for many, is non-existent.
Here’s what it’s like to live there.
On the 8th of August, Taiwanese singer-songwriter Eric Chou held a concert at Taipei Arena with more than 10,000 people in attendance. Indoors and with no social distancing enforced, at first reading, it sounds like a breeding ground for virus transmission. However, more than two months on from the show, zero coronavirus infections have been reported in Taiwan as a result of the concert. In fact, at the time of writing, there hasn’t been a confirmed case of the virus spread domestically in Taiwan since the 12th of April. But how can this be? With almost 24 million residents and a population density of 671 people per square kilometre (far greater than the density of the UK or US), and not to mention its proximity to China, you’d expect Taiwan to have been hit far more severely by the pandemic.
To sum up the success of Taiwan’s COVID-19 response as simply as possible, it’s down to preparation, proactive leadership and the willingness of the public to comply with all enforced virus prevention regulations. In 2003, Taiwan lost 73 lives to SARS – the highest mortality rate in the world from the virus. Since then, the country has been prepared for the next big outbreak and rolled out its response as soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Wuhan last December.
Enforcing the wearing of masks on public transport, limiting the size of public gatherings, closing the borders to non-nationals and residents, and introducing mandatory 14-day quarantines for everyone entering the country, Taiwan managed to quickly curb the spread of the virus without the need for lockdowns or great change to everyday life. So, what’s it been like living here?
I first wore a mask due to virus concerns on the 29th of January. It was that week, during Chinese New Year, that people in Taiwan began to worry. During the fortnight that followed, I spoke to friends in China, from where I’d moved the previous May, where the majority of cities had gone into total lockdown. A friend in Shandong showed me the permit he had to present to security guards in order to leave his residential compound to buy provisions, another told me how she was stuck in Guangdong, unable to return to Shanghai due to bans on inter-provincial travel. Before the lockdown, an American friend fell ill upon returning to Shanghai from Beijing. At a time when COVID-19 testing was unavailable, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and given medication that had no effect. Surely lockdowns, travel restrictions and those I care about getting sick would be a reality in Taiwan in the not too distant future?
The Diamond Princess cruise ship docking in Keelung on the 31st of January demonstrated how prepared Taiwan was for this outbreak. A week or so later, once cases had been confirmed aboard the ship, everyone in Taipei received a mobile message with a link to a special Google Map showing all the places the potentially infected passengers had visited and when. This was as scary as it was impressive, but gave me faith that those in charge knew what they were doing. Since then, anyone thought to have come into contact with an infected person is immediately contacted and tested or instructed to self-isolate, depending on their risk level.
For the majority of this year, life here has been, dare I say, normal. No known outside cases of the virus have infiltrated the local population for more than six months. Out of Taiwan’s 548 confirmed cases (correct as of the 22nd of October), less than 100 of them have been transmitted domestically, with most coming from overseas. In the last few months, I’ve been to restaurants, bars, clubs, exhibitions, cinemas and gig venues, basically worry-free. Of course, it only takes one sick person in the wrong place at the wrong time to turn back the clock, but there are times here when you genuinely forget that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
One strange side effect of living in Taiwan at this time is a weird sort of guilt. For a while, uploading a picture to Instagram of me at the beach or out for dinner caused a little pang of guilt in my stomach when I thought of those in other countries being unable to do the same. Obviously, I don’t want to be going through any of the lockdowns or furloughs that come with a virus pandemic, but, at times, I can’t help but feel that my freedom is undeserved.
Of course, my guilt is irrational and unnecessary. I’m not receiving any special treatment. I just happen to live in a country where those in charge and those living here took the situation incredibly seriously from day one. Taiwan is a glimpse into the future. A future where the virus still exists, but is being handled expertly, efficiently and empathetically.