Opinion & Analysis

A view on COVID-19 from Taiwan

As the global response to COVID-19 ramps up, the Asia Media Centre takes a look at Kiwis on the ground in Asia and how they're dealing with it. Here's Ron Hanson, editor of the art magazine and project White Fungus, currently based in Taiwan.

When did you first become aware of COVID-19, and what do you remember of the messages officials first put out? 

I heard about [coronavirus] pretty early on when we were receiving the initial reports from China. I lived through the SARS epidemic when Taiwan was hardest-hit, outside of China and Hong Kong, so was pretty attuned to this news.

I was also skeptical of the initial claims by China that this would be contained. I wasn't really paying particular attention to statements from officials but was keeping an eye on it in the media.  

What official measures have been put in place to control the spread?

Taiwanese officials are rightly receiving much international praise for thus far containing the virus.

Taiwan was first to ban flights from Wuhan and quickly implemented a rigorous testing and quarantine regime. Since the SARS epidemic people here have been in the habit of wearing masks and limiting the spread of illness. 

Following the Chinese New Year the government recommended that schools extend their winter holiday period and most schools were off for an additional one to two weeks. The government banned the export of masks and began a rationing program.

Pretty early on people started voluntarily cancelling events. It feels like people are taking the initiative and acting sensibly. Taiwan has a strong public health care system and people here are quick to visit a doctor when feeling unwell. 

Ron Hanson Taichung CityRon Hanson at an intersection in Taichung City, Taiwan. Photo: Ron Hanson/Supplied

Has anything changed in your daily routine? And what changes are people making more widely? For example: are people, avoiding public areas or stocking up on supplies?

Initially, it was difficult to get masks but that problem seems to have been solved due to the government's rationing policy.

I just stocked up on canned and dried food and there was a pretty lengthy wait in line but not a shortage of supplies.

I'm avoiding public areas and looking to settle into a quiet period. If I were in my 20s, this would affect me much more greatly, but I tend to avoid crowded spaces as it is. The night-life is dead and restaurants are being hit hard.

Thus far, my day-to-day life isn't too different but I'm anticipating some disruption up ahead. I did cancel a big arts event I was organizing for April. We made the decision to cancel early due to our experience with SARS.

Is COVID-19 a massive point of conversation, and what tone do people talk about it in – panicked? Calm but cautious? How do people feel about the response from officials?

When it became clear that China wasn't going to be able to contain the virus, things felt pretty tense.

But gradually the feeling has eased as measures have thus far succeeded and we've seen a very steady but gradual increase in the number of confirmed cases.

We had a test-run for this with SARS and this time it feels like people are responding well. SARS was chaotic and it was difficult to have confidence in the government.

This time it feels like we're in good hands. No doubt this is going to cause a lot of harm, but it feels like the damage is being kept to a minimum. Personally, I've learned from my experience of SARS and am trying to keep calm and avoid becoming obsessed over the virus. Sometimes you've got to be philosophical and keep the big picture in mind. 

1280px Taoyuan Airport MRT Service Taoyuan Airport Terminal 2 20180512In response to COVID-19, Taiwan was quick to restrict international travel and impose quarantines. Pictured: Taoyuan Airport
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Following a spike of confirmed cases in Taiwan over the last few days, Hanson had this to add:

All of them were instances of Taiwanese returning from travel abroad. It seems that some foolishly decided to take advantage of cheap travel opportunities.

Officials have announced that people who act in this way and get infected will not have their medical costs covered by the government and will be publicly named; an old-fashioned form or social control which I have mixed feelings about.

So, the second wave is upon us.

Tension is rising but I still feel we're as prepared for this as possible. I'm going to step up my own precautions.

I won't be making any trips to Taipei, will avoid eating in restaurants and stay away from public spaces in general. I've got a lot of reading to do anyhow, so will make the most of the current moment to get that done.

One concern I've had is that recently, a couple Americans visited someone living here and got their host infected. The foreign community is very small.

If it spreads through this community, I'm worried that people will be keen to avoid foreigners. That could have implications for my work and make life here quite uncomfortable. So far it hasn't happened. I stocked up on more food and am preparing to head to ground if need be. These are fascinating times. 

- Asia Media Centre