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Learning from the Taiwan Model

/ 04:05 AM December 22, 2020

Taiwan’s trailblazing digital minister, Audrey Tang, was the main speaker at the “Kaya Pala! (It Can Be Done)” forum the other week, which focused on lessons from Taiwan’s evident success in containing both the coronavirus pandemic and the disinformation phenomenon, the so-called infodemic. (It was my happy task to serve as forum moderator.)Tang offered a close-up view of Taiwan’s “three pillars in social innovation,” which she summarized as the 3 Fs: Fast, Fair, Fun.

She started with the by now well-known fact that Taiwan responded immediately to the first public report of a SARS-like illness, posted by the Chinese whistleblower Li Wenliang (who later succumbed to the new disease) on Dec. 30, 2019. It was shared on Taiwan’s PTT platform the next day, where different people, experts and laymen alike, “triaged the message,” Tang said, to confirm that “it’s a legitimate early warning.” The following day, Jan. 1, Taiwan launched its anti-coronavirus containment campaign.

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The results have been extraordinary. Taiwan, which has a population of over 23 million, has managed to limit the number of COVID-19 cases to 766 and the number of deaths to 7—without a national lockdown.

One reason for Taiwan’s immediate response was its experience with the SARS outbreak in 2003, where it suffered 73 deaths. The time proved to be a moment of “societal inoculation,” Tang said, when the country resolved to do better. Under prodding from its Constitutional Court, legislation was passed to create the Central Epidemic Command Center. The national health insurance system provided all citizens with a smart card.

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But another reason for the success of the Fast strategy was the government’s reliance on “collective intelligence”—which Wired magazine in a November 2020 story described in part as “an ethos of open data and open government, an enthusiastic ‘open source’ movement, and the use of big data analytics in apps and services.” These factors helped make it possible for the government to update its communication channels “every 30 seconds.”

Fair is the second strategy. And again collective intelligence through information technology plays a crucial role. Tang’s example was the rationing of masks. The smart cards the citizens use help its users know not only how many are in the queue at a particular drug store; they show how many masks are still available. And the aggregate data help pinpoint areas (mainly rural, if I understood Tang correctly) where mask supply may be inequitable.

She told a quick story about a young schoolboy’s query raised “in mid-April” as an example of Fast, because the government responded on national TV the very next day. But I also understood it as an example of the Fairness principle. The schoolboy had complained that his household had only received pink masks, but all the boys in school wore blue masks. The next day, “the Quints” (the five medical officers who address the nation at the 2 p.m. daily press conference), all showed up wearing pink masks—turning the schoolboy into a celebrity of sorts. I thought the story showed the virtue of role modeling: public officials acting with true equity in mind.

Fun, the third strategy, summarizes Taiwan’s “counter-infodemic” approach. Essentially, Taiwan deals with disinformation and misinformation not only with alacrity, but with a touch of comedy. “Turns out joy, humor, is an effective vaccine” against the infodemic, Tang said. In her telling, the “humor over rumor” approach helps diffuse potentially polarizing issues. “Democracy is not a showdown of ideas, but rather a conversation between various ideas.”

It is not possible to do justice to all that Tang said; a good thing that a recording of the forum is available on the Facebook page of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, which hosted the forum together with the Center for Liberalism and Democracy.

The panelists invited to respond to Tang’s presentation were Dr. Noel Bernardo, a “doctor to the barrios” serving Batanes; Camille Diola, editor in chief of PhilStar.com; and Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo.

I had joked that “Kaya pala,” the forum theme which meant “It can be done,” could also be pronounced a little differently, to mean “So that’s why.” Quimbo, who has four degrees in economics, including a PhD from the University of the Philippines and an MA (with distinction) in Economics for Competition Policy from Kings College London, illustrated the point, when she identified eight “information failures” of the Philippine response to the pandemic. I will post the full speech on my Newsstand blog, but allow me to highlight the three reforms she said were urgently needed :

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1. The Department of Health must undertake capacity building to ensure that they have the in-house capacity to collect, encode, store, analyze, report, and communicate data. Currently, the DOH relies on external experts but appears to have difficulty vetting advice from outsiders. A specific recommendation from my end is the creation of a Health Economics Unit within the DOH that will be tasked with data management …

2. We need a digital transformation in government. We need government to shift to digital platforms, including for payments under social protection programs and regulatory processes for businesses. This requires legislation that will ensure the provision of digital infrastructure …

3. Mechanisms to promote inter-local coordination need to be adopted. If two cities in Metro Manila can have their own contact tracing apps, why can’t the 15 others do the same? More importantly, why can’t they choose to adopt a single app or at least compatible apps so the systems can be linked?

Kaya pala.—————-On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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