Few imagined at its start that 2020 would be defined by a pandemic. Even fewer anticipated that Taiwan, by the end of 2020, would be one of the only places where life feels normal and is minimally impacted by COVID-19. Taiwan maintains some of the best COVID-19 statistics in the world, despite its constant marginalization on the world stage and lack of recognition for its de facto independent status. As of January 25, 2021, Taiwan has only recorded seven deaths from COVID-19 and enjoyed a 250-day streak with no domestic transmission of the virus. Even when the disease has spread domestically, Taiwan’s institutional response stopped more cases from emerging. Despite the global pandemic wreaking havoc on the world’s economy, Taiwan has managed to become one of the only economies in the world to grow in 2020 and is poised to continue to do so in 2021.
How did Taiwan manage to make the best of 2020’s worst situation?
Two key antecedents set the stage for Taiwan’s COVID-19 success. The first and perhaps most fundamental key to Taiwan’s COVID-19 response was its robust institutions. Taiwan not only had the capacity to handle an epidemic, but it also had experience in doing so. The 2003 SARS epidemic, despite being 18 years ago, is still fresh in many Taiwanese minds, especially those who run its public health sector. Taiwan suffered 73 deaths during the SARS epidemic, the third-most deaths in the world behind Canada and China. In 2003, Taiwan’s health care system not only passed the SARS stress test, but also learned how to better handle itself in the future.
The second key that ultimately hastened Taiwan’s response was its historic exclusion from the World Health Organization. Taiwan, while previously granted limited observer status in the WHO under Kuomintang (KMT) administrations, has been summarily blocked from participating by China when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power. This was the case in 2003 during the SARS outbreak and Chen Shui-bian’s presidency, as it was and currently is under the Tsai administration. Taiwan’s exclusion from a critical international health organization like the WHO cuts off local health officials from coordinating and exchanging information on a government-to-government level, furthering Taiwan’s isolation. But the silver lining of Taiwan’s exclusion is the need to rely on itself; it neither needed nor could afford to wait for the WHO or other countries to act or give guidance. Taiwan began to plan for a pandemic the second it got wind of a new pneumonia coming out of Wuhan. Unfortunate self-reliance ultimately helped Taiwan respond far more punctually than any other country.