The democratic government of Taiwan announced on Tuesday its twelfth day of no new Chinese coronavirus cases in the country and thirty-seventh day since identifying a documented domestic case.
Despite its proximity to the virus’s country of origin, China; its dense population; and widespread travel during the Lunar New Year holiday in late January, Taiwan has largely managed to curb the spread of the disease. Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at his daily briefing on Tuesday that Taiwan is now largely focusing on vaccine development and restoring normalcy in daily life, though he encouraged heightened awareness of maintaining good hygiene to prevent a resurgence of cases. Chen appeared optimistic about vaccines, stating that ten vaccines in development have already entered clinical trials globally.
Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) affirmed that the last domestic case recorded on the island occurred on April 12. The local outlet Focus Taiwan noted that even among the hundreds of documented cases in Taiwan, only 55 of them have been identified as “local infections.”
“Since the outbreak of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] late last year, Taiwan has recorded 440 cases, 349 of which have been classified as imported and 55 as local infections, according to CECC statistics,” Focus Taiwan noted. “The other 36 cases are a cluster infection on a Navy vessel that returned April 9 from a Pacific goodwill mission. Those cases have not yet been classified as either local or imported.”
Taiwan has documented seven deaths. Taiwan is home to nearly 24 million people. In comparison, nations with similar populations include Niger (55 deaths), Australia (100 deaths), Romania (1,126 deaths), and Chile (478 deaths).
The positive news will result in increasingly opening public venues in the most densely populated parts of the country. Channel News Asia reported on Monday that the Taipei local government is planning to enter a second phase of reopening on May 25 that will see the restoration of services at public assembly halls and other facilities, including a city childcare center. The public venues will have to confirm with limited capacity demands and document closely the people coming in and out of the venues to facilitate contact tracing. These venues will join already ongoing activities, such as Taiwan’s baseball league season, which began last month.
Observers have largely attributed Taiwan’s success to early action in the face of intelligence suggesting a contagious respiratory illness in China. Following the SARS coronavirus outbreak in 2003, the Taiwanese government developed an agency specifically to address epidemics called the National Health Command Center (NHCC), which centralized both public health and intelligence operations to ensure a streamlined response. This time around, Taiwan also counted on having an epidemiologist as vice president, Chen Chien-jen, who had served as the nation’s health minister during the SARS epidemic.
Taiwan’s success in combatting the virus is particularly notable given its exclusion from the World Health Organization (W.H.O.). The W.H.O., a United Nations agency, bans Taiwan from membership and has not allowed it to participate in its annual meeting, the World Health Assembly, since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016. Tsai will begin her second term in office on Tuesday.
The World Health Assembly began on Monday without Taiwan, despite a large number of member countries urging Taipei’s inclusion. Responding to demands to include Taiwan, W.H.O. officials claimed last week that they did not have the power to extend the invitation because there was no consensus around inviting the country. China is the only country to vocally oppose Taiwan being granted observer status in the agency, threatening “non-peaceful” measures to keep it out last week.
The agency tabled any discussion on Taiwan’s status during this year’s meeting.
“We won’t be sharing the Taiwan model at the conference, which is the WHO’s loss, but also means we can’t learn from the experiences of other countries,” Chen, Taiwan’s health minister, said on Monday. “We must express our strong dissatisfaction, protest and regret.”
Tsai also personally lamented the move, implying that it showed a lack of “professionalism” on the part of the U.N. organization.
I regret that @WHO has once again excluded #Taiwan from international dialogue for political reasons. Politics should never override professionalism, & no amount of pressure will stop us from continuing to fight #COVID19 & contribute to global health. #TaiwanIsHelping pic.twitter.com/aUwTyclDLq
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) May 19, 2020
Speaking on Monday at the World Health Assembly on behalf of the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called Taiwan a “critical” partner in fighting the Chinese coronavirus and excoriated the W.H.O. for its poor performance against the pandemic.
“We must be frank about one of the primary reasons this outbreak spun out of control: there was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed. And that failure cost many lives,” Azar said, accusing the W.H.O. of having “made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.”
“This cannot ever happen again. The status quo is intolerable,” Azar affirmed.
Taiwan’s coronavirus experience could be pivotal in containing the pandemic. Taiwanese officials were aware of the Chinese coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus originated, as early as December 2019. That month, Taipei sent a letter to the W.H.O. detailing that the island had begun isolating patients with a respiratory infection from China. The W.H.O. ignored Taiwan’s warnings and claimed publicly that the Chinese coronavirus was not transmissible from human to human as late as January.
Taiwanese officials confirmed in January that the W.H.O. had turned down 70 percent of its requests for meetings regarding the crisis.
W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who is not a medical doctor, responded to Taipei making public the fact that its warnings in December were ignored by accusing the Taiwanese government of racism.
“Abuses, or racist comments, giving me names, black or Negro. … Three months ago, this attack came from Taiwan. We need to be honest. I will be straight today. From Taiwan. And Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry also, they know the campaign,” Tedros said in April, offering no evidence to support his claims. Taiwanese officials vehemently denied the insults and Tsai invited Tedros to visit Taiwan and see for himself if her people were racist.