When COVID-19 was announced, Taiwan was expected to follow the trajectory of the 2003 SARS outbreak and be the second hardest hit by the pandemic after China. With geographical proximity and heavy traffic between China and Taiwan, this was an expected outcome. Yet by May 5, 2020, Taiwan had only reported 438 confirmed cases, resulting in 6 deaths, which is in sharp contrast to Italy and the USA as of the same day, with 213,013 cases and 29,315 deaths37 and 1,171,510 cases and 68,279 deaths,38 respectively. The control over the spread of the virus could be attributed to a number of factors, including the island’s coordinated leadership structure as well as a fast and strong risk management and disaster planning response approach. The resilient disaster management strategy allowed the integration of information platforms across different sectors to leverage big data and social media to manage and control public fears through open, transparent, real-time communication. Meanwhile, the leadership was able to swiftly and nimbly enact laws to immediately control mass hysteria and impose measures to prevent the spread of the virus. They also integrated the national health insurance database with the immigration and customs databases to allow the government to provide real-time data to its citizens and researchers tracking the new disease.
In the year 2000, Taiwan had developed a Disaster Prevention and Protection Organizational Framework in response to natural hazards which caused major economic losses. However, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the Framework was updated for biological disasters. Over the next several years, the Department of Health and Centre for Disease Control regularly reviewed and updated their strategies and regulations.
What did we learn from Taiwan?
Taiwan cultivated strong relationships with its communities, private sector and non-profit organizations resulting in smooth and swift action at the community level. This ensured that measures such as quarantine sites were available and protective equipment (PPE) donation services were provided when the pandemic struck.
Taiwan shows that a concerted approach in leadership with foresight to conduct continued risk management and planning can save lives.