Taiwan has only 47 coronavirus cases. Its response to the crisis shows that swift action and widespread healthcare can prevent an outbreak.
- Though the island state is only 81 miles from mainland China, Taiwan has managed to stem what could have been a crisis.
- The country leveraged its public health infrastructure and affordable health care to keep its population safe and healthy compared to nearby countries.
- As other countries struggle to manage their COVID-19 epidemics, they can learn something from Taipei's swift, multifaceted response to the virus, experts say.
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Only 81 miles from mainland China, the island state of Taiwan and its nearly 24 million residents faced a dire threat as COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, broke out in Wuhan, China, late last year.
But instead of pandemonium, the country has taken control of the situation. Taiwan has only 47 confirmed cases and a single death, and more than 40% of infected individuals are recovered. The government in Taipei has implemented 124 safety protocols, a testimony to its quick, vast and well-considered battle against COVID-19. China, by comparison, has around 81,000 confirmed cases.
"The policies and actions go beyond border control," Jason Wang, a Stanford University pediatrics professor and policy analysis expert, told the publication Stanford Health Policy, "because they recognized that that wasn't enough."
How did Taiwan manage to stem a health crisis that originated in nearby China and has seen 127,000 infections and nearly 5,000 deaths around the globe?
In an article published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Wang credited the government's early and swift action: It took advantage of public-health infrastructure and data analytics, affordable health care, and extensive educational outreach.
Taiwan quickly implemented extensive screening for people traveling from Wuhan
On December 31, Chinese officials notified the World Health Organization that China had several then-unknown cases of pneumonia. And that same day, the Taiwanese Center for Disease Control began monitoring passengers who arrived in the country from Wuhan. Government officials boarded flights from Wuhan as soon as they landed, monitoring passengers for COVID-19 symptoms.
Less than a week later, the government began monitoring people who had traveled from Wuhan since around December 20. "Suspected cases were screened for 26 viruses, including SARS and MERS," according to a Stanford University Health Policy report. "Passengers displaying symptoms were quarantined at home and assessed whether medical attention at a hospital was necessary."
In mid-January, Taiwan sent a team of experts on a fact-finding mission to China, with the latter's permission, even though Taiwanese-Chinese relations are less than stellar.
"They didn't let us see what they didn't want us to see, but our experts sensed the situation was not optimistic," Kolas Yotaka, a Taiwan government spokesperson, told NBC News. Then the government ramped up safety and health protocols even further.
By late January, Taipei established a Central Epidemic Command Center, centralizing policy measures to protect public health. On January 26, Taiwan became the first country to ban flights from Wuhan.
Around the same time, the government banned the export of face masks and ensured they were affordable by capping prices. At the time of writing, they are $0.17 each.
By late February, Taipei distributed nearly 6.5 million masks to primary and secondary schools, as well as after-school institutions, plus 84,000 liters of hand sanitizer and 25,000 forehead thermometers.
Intensive health monitoring through big data and repeat testing
Taiwan's health infrastructure, including big-data analysis, is partially the result of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which killed 73 people and stunted the economy.
After the 2003 epidemic, Taiwan put temperature monitors in airports to screen travelers for fever, which is a symptom of COVID-19. The government had learned its lesson.
Travelers can also report their travel and health history with a QR code, which the government uses "to classify travelers' infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history in the last 14 days," according to the Stanford health report.
"People who had not traveled to high-risk areas were sent a health declaration border pass via SMS for faster immigration clearance," the report said. "Those who had traveled to high-risk areas were quarantined at home and tracked through their mobile phones to ensure that they stayed home during the incubation period."
Crucially, the government does not forget about those who have already tested negative for the virus. Instead, it retests them to keep track of new cases, Wang told NBC News.
'Taiwan's health insurance lets everyone not be afraid to go to the hospital'
Health insurance covers 99% of the population, according to Kolas, the government spokesperson. She said that this coverage, which is affordable, virtually guarantees that people do not need to choose between their personal and financial health.
"Taiwan's health insurance lets everyone not be afraid to go to the hospital. If you suspect you have coronavirus, you won't have to worry that you can't afford the hospital visit to get tested," she told NBC
"So no one would avoid seeing the doctor because they can't pay for health care," she added.
Easy access to information
In order to stem the crisis, Taipei required television and radio broadcasters to broadcast hourly public service announcements on the nature of COVID-19, including how it spreads and how people should prevent infection.
"We think only when information is transparent, and people have sufficient medical knowledge, will their fear be reduced," Kolas, the government spokeswoman, said.
In turn, everyday people have intensified their own safety practices. According to school principal Tu Chen-yang, this is especially evident in schools.
"More than 95% of our parents take their child's temperature at home and report it to the school before the children arrive," Tu told NBC News. "Regardless of what the government does, people have to take responsibility for their own health."
Further, public and private buildings alike are screening entrants for a fever. If they show signs of one, they cannot be allowed inside. And apartment buildings have placed hand sanitizer inside or outside elevators.
It takes an entire country to keep people safe, and Taiwan's extensive coordination and swift action has helped stem the tide of coronavirus cases in the country.
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