Taiwan: Uncommon Sensemaking During Covid19

When the corona virus hit Wuhan, China and was brought to the awareness of the rest of the world in late 2019 or early 2020, many economies were caught flatfooted, unable to respond adequately or quickly; even the wealthiest and most powerful countries were unprepared for the crisis of this lifetime.  

Nearby economies were even seen to be more susceptible, because of continuous movements across borders of goods and people; and yet some were able to manage the pandemic better than others.

One such economy is Taiwan. In 2003, Taiwan was one of 26 countries affected with the SARS virus, officially recording 346 cases (or 4.2% of the 8,098 cases worldwide) with 37 deaths (or 4.8% of the 774 worldwide).  

In the recent COVID crisis, Taiwan was affected with 440 cases (0.01% of over 4.35 million confirmed cases worldwide) but with only 7 deaths (0.002% of 297,000 worldwide) from close to 70,000 people lab-tested so far.   Taiwan has learned well from its 2003 SARS experience, and was immediately able to establish protocols in place. 

TaiwanSARS 2003COVID19 2020
(as of May 14, 2020)
No. of confirmed cases346440
No. of deaths377

Comparative statistics from other countries in Asia are provided below as of May 14, 2020:

 SARS 2003COVID19  2020
(as of May 14, 2020)
Hong KongConfirmed cases: 1755
No. of deaths: 300
Confirmed cases: 1051
No. of deaths: 4
IndonesiaConfirmed: 2
Death: 0
Confirmed: 16.006
Death: 1,043
JapanConfirmed: 0
Death: 0
Confirmed: 16,103
Death: 696
PhilippinesConfirmed: 14
Death: 2
Confirmed: 11,876
Death: 790
SingaporeConfirmed: 238
Death: 33
Confirmed: 26,098
Death: 21
South KoreaConfirmed: 3
Death: 0
Confirmed: 10,991
Death: 260
ThailandConfirmed: 9
Death: 2
Confirmed: 3,018
Death: 56
VietnamConfirmed: 63
Death: 5
Confirmed: 288
Death: 0

Taiwan’s first case of COVID was on January 21, 2020 (or 9 days ahead of the first case recorded in the Philippines on Jan. 30, 2020).  What did Taiwan, with a population of close to 24 million people, do differently? What can we learn from Taiwan?

For one, the sensemaking, or the process by which people pay attention and give meaning to their collective experiences, of the government officials was on point, simplifying complexity by recognizing that the rapid transmission rate of COVID19 will stress their health care capacity, and as such prevention and discipline were the only keys to avoid a pandemic.  

They undertook single-minded and decisive actions across a well-defined value chain, such as:

  1. Cancellation of all international events starting February 2020
  2. Banning of flights
    • Banned direct flight to/from Wuhan starting Jan. 25, 2020
    • Prohibited entry of all Chinese from China, including docking of ships, effective Feb 6, 2020
    • Banned entry of anyone who traveled to China the past 14 days effective Feb 7, 2020
    • Stopped all flights to China except to 5 airports effective Feb. 10, 2020
  3. Mandatory 14-day quarantine for all inbound passengers effective March 18, 2020  
    • Quarantined people were made to stay in quarantine hotels (not in their homes) and given “care bags” plus NT$100 daily allowance (US$33.5) except to people who went abroad against the directive of the government.
    • Disease-prevention taxis and ambulances with GPS tracker are provided in designated spots for those under quarantine to reach their quarantine hotels or hospitals; drivers are paid very well (daily rate of NT$3,500 (US$117) to do  this dedicated job, which includes disinfecting their vehicles after each trip.
    • Heavy fines have been imposed for violating quarantine ranging between NT$100,000 (US$3,346) to NT$10 million (US$334,600)
    • Contact tracing phone trackers installed with personal calls to check at 7am and 7pm. Warnings are sent immediately and the police would appear if the calls are not answered. 

  4. Efficient assignment of some 1,000 negative pressure isolation rooms to COVID19 patients.
  5. Public – private cooperative advertising on the need for hand washing and social distancing.
  6. Safeguard measures
    • Mandatory use of face masks in public places
      • Bought from West Germany a machine to manufacture 17 million face masks daily 
      • Phone app indicating stock levels of masks in nearby drugstores 
      • Prohibited export of face masks (amended later with donations of face masks to some countries)
    • Mandatory daily checking of temperature and use of hand sanitizers in buildings or schools
      • Contact tracing information for all guests in buildings 
  7. Tough penalties for posting or reporting fake news with maximum jail sentence of three years or a fine of up to NT$3 million (US$100,383) effective February 2020
  8. Non-essential gatherings are limited to between 100-150 people for indoors and outdoor events.

These focused and clear directions introduced by the Taiwanese government were clearly culled from lessons learned past crisis. They acted swiftly, aware that time was of the essence, especially with the expected influx of travelers into Taiwan for Chinese New Year end of January 2020.  Indeed, this is a case study to learn from – the Taiwanese economy grew by 1.54% in the first quarter of 2020 using big data without resorting to a lock down, validating the accuracy of their worldview, perhaps common sense that could actually be uncommon during a totally unexpected crisis.  After all, sensemaking depends on our background, as well as the people with whom we are currently interacting.

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