Taiwan got it right vs COVID-19 | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

Taiwan got it right vs COVID-19

/ 05:05 AM September 17, 2020

Just when I thought I’ve had enough of COVID-19 from TV, there was the interview via video link by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on his “GPS” show several days ago of former Taiwanese vice president Chen Chien-Jen on how the island nation north of and so near the Philippines conquered the pandemic so effectively. Dr. Chen is a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist. But one thing that made me stay tuned was the bright smile that this doctor kept flashing, as if everything was all roses and even while the rest of the world was groaning under the COVID-19 pandemic. (Except US President Donald Trump playing Pied Piper to his rah-rah crowd who left their face masks at home and gathered last weekend to thumb their noses at scientists and proclaim their invincibility. I thought I was seeing a suicidal cult. Such recklessness displayed to the world. But I digress.)

Chen was sunshine personified and he could look every inch Chinese-Filipino (wishful thinking), the face one would like to see from one’s hospital bed. Chen explained the Taiwan model that won the fight against the virus. There was no rocket science involved, only strict observance of the model that was put in place. (Watch the CNN replay and believe.)


Taiwan has a population of close to 25 million. According to its Central Epidemic Command Center as of Sept. 14, 499 cases have been confirmed and seven deaths reported. In contrast, New York City with close to 9 million population, has almost 33,000 deaths.

Taiwan’s population is double that of Metro Manila’s, but Taiwan’s figures are way, way below the infected thousands and the deaths in our national capital region. What gives? Is it the task force waging war against the virus? Is it our Filipino culture and the bahala na, pasaway attitude? Is it the given factor of poverty that prevents many from staying put because they have to forage for food? Is it our leaders? Our national leaders?


Where/who is the symphony conductor? I have been watching too many classical concerts (this year being Beethoven’s 250th) on a cable TV channel dedicated to classical music/opera/jazz/dance, and I am awed at how symphony conductors with their downbeat command music to begin and gush forth. And with their batons, hands, and facial expressions draw out from the musicians the perfect tones that turn into unforgettable sounds and melodies.

In the Philippines’ case (and to borrow an Elvis idiom), the symphony conductor seems to have left the building.

Taiwan did not opt for mass testing, an obsession of some Filipinos who think that that is the best way. Rather, Chen said, Taiwan went for “very stringent contact tracing” and tracking down those who could be infected and were infectious.

We saw that done doggedly and without fanfare in Baguio City under Mayor Ben Magalong, a former military man, whose model became something to follow.

Taiwan, Chen said, had mandatory 14-day quarantine for people who happened to be in contact with those who tested positive for the virus. In all, 250,000 had to be quarantined for the sake of the rest of Taiwan’s 25 million citizens. “We sacrificed 250,000 for 14 days, a small group of people, so the rest can live normally.” Total lockdown is no good, he said.

By doing that, massive implementation of lockdowns was avoided and people were able to do business as usual. So unlike in the Philippines where businesses ground to a halt and government had to shovel out mounds of cash for the most needy. Because it was either death by the coronavirus or death by hunger. Or even death by murder if anarchy broke out.

Chen cited the New England Journal of Medicine that said atypical pneumonia cases that broke out in Wuhan (the epicenter) in mainland China toward the end of 2019 were not reported to the World Health Organization. Chinese authorities did not isolate what seemed like mild cases. This caused the virus to spread.


Taiwan certainly showed mainland China, the island nation’s constant threat, that it has what it takes.

Chen, once Taiwan’s vice president, had a taste of political power but did not want more. He wanted to go back to being a doctor for his people.

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