After more than a year and a half of globally lauded success in taming the COVID-19 pandemic, in May 2021 Taiwan found itself facing an unprecedented surge in cases that posed a critical test for its leaders. The island’s 23 million residents had watched as countries around the world danced through phases of lockdown and re-opening, fumbled efforts at testing and tracing, and grappled with death and despair. Meanwhile, since the beginning of the coronavirus catastrophe, Taiwan enjoyed a degree of normalcy that brought it universal acclaim as a public health paragon other nations could only envy.
So when Taiwan’s daily cases suddenly surged to record high numbers in May – even in the tens of thousands – the nation’s citizens quickly turned to their government, eagerly awaiting an effective response.
In time of crisis, Taiwan’s political leadership acted. And while health officials in Taiwan’s capital stepped up, perhaps no group officials moved as decisively as the chief executives of each city and municipality – mayors whose offices sat at the frontlines of the pandemic.
The challenges posed by the coronavirus have highlighted the indispensable value and resilience that local governments and leaders can bring to bear in moments of crisis. Positioned at the doorstep of a nation’s citizenry, local leaders have, in times of crisis, reclaimed their pivotal roles in public service. They have reinvigorated their perspective of pragmatic diplomacy that brings the attention back to finding solutions to daily problems.
Located between Taiwan’s largest international airport and its capital of Taipei, New Taipei City, the island’s most populated metropolis with 4 million inhabitants, emerged in May as the epicenter of the pandemic – which began with a cluster of airline pilots in late April. Just weeks later COVID-19 had penetrated Taiwan’s border control and the capital.
A combination of a low vaccination rate (3 percent at that time) and the Taiwan Central Epidemic Command Center’s (CECC) backlogged testing labyrinth cost local governments valuable time. Because of it, many cities missed initial opportunities to contain the spread and were not able to isolate and treat cases in time. In the beginning, identifying positive cases was a slow process due to the gridlock of paperwork of CECC. In some cases, the delay could be as long as two weeks, resulting in infected individuals and their families not being quarantined, receiving no treatment, or even worse, passing away while waiting for PCR test results from the CECC.
However, the New Taipei City government led by its mayor, a former police detective, responded urgently. Mayor Hou Yu-ih activated a new initiative called the Ping Ning (“Peace”) project. With a bottom-up, citizen-first approach, the initiative mobilized three separate government divisions, integrating their actions seamlessly: the City Government’s District Offices; community health care centers; and regional police stations. While district officers received guidance directly from the mayor and coordinated civil and social welfare affairs in the neighborhood, health care centers carried out the public health policies, and law enforcement performed in-depth investigations to fill in the apparent gaps of contact tracing. The district offices also provided assistance to low-income families who are affected both by the virus and poverty. With the support of the above agencies, the health care centers could then focus on medical readiness preparation without stretching manpower too thin.
Leveraging top health experts, Hou carefully evaluated, examined, and implemented a set of intentionally calibrated policies, making sure that they meet the needs of New Taipei’s citizens. The city, for example, adopted non-pharmaceutical interventions in high alert areas and established free rapid testing services for all citizens, regardless of residency. Information is also shared with neighboring cities that may need to adopt action to curb the spread.
In many ways, New Taipei’s active implementation of COVID-19 response was more aggressive than that of the central government, and involved broader citizens’ participation. For example, the 39 rapid testing stations have conducted 200,000 free tests to date, and people voluntarily cut down on visits to many public places including markets. Many of these local prevention measurements, such as widespread testing, were first criticized by the media and received no support from national authorities. However, these tests identify a high number of asymptomatic cases, so the local authorities can take actions to stop the virus from spreading further. That is especially crucial due to the imbalance of the medical resources between New Taipei and the neighboring capital city, Taipei.
Meanwhile, last spring, when New Taipei City’s sister city, Cincinnati, Ohio in the United States, requested assistance, the Secretariat of the City Government immediately mobilized partners across industry, government, and academy. Together with the Education Department, the Columbia Alumni Association in Taiwan, and UPS, New Taipei shipped 2,000 pieces of locally-made PPE to Cincinnati. In return, Rep. Steve Chabot, as a congressman of Cincinnati, Ohio, and a co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, wrote to Mayor Hou to commit his staunch support for Taiwan and New Taipei to be provided with resources in their time of need, including the recent U.S. donation of 2.5 million vaccine doses to the island. Chabot has also played a crucial role in supporting Taiwan’s participation at the WHO for years.
With a little over a month of intensive non-pharmaceutical interventions, widespread testing, and timely tracing measures, New Taipei’s tactics started to reap the fruits as the spread of pandemic was halted. After two months, New Taipei reduced its number of daily confirmed cases from three digits to single digits, despite a population that remains largely unvaccinated.
This example strikingly reveals that Taiwan’s fundamental source of strength in pandemic prevention lies in citizens’ collaboration, proactive local governments that prioritize public health, and local leaders’ governing style and personality.
Undoubtedly, Hou’s no-nonsense persona stood out. In January 2020, when the pandemic had just begun to blossom, Hou rang alarm bells – urging citizens to wear masks and even issuing mask orders before the central government took such steps. In fact, it was not until months later that the CECC acknowledged the importance of wearing masks and adopted the recommendation to prevent droplet-borne transmission.
To be sure, divergence and disagreement in pandemic prevention efforts between local and central government policies are common issues worldwide. This is largely due to accelerating urbanization, which has not only entailed a shift of people, resources, and innovation into cities but also exacerbated problems of pollution, waste disposal, traffic congestion, public safety, the dispensation of justice, and rapid spread of viruses. These problems cannot be solved by the conventional geopolitics constructed by national sovereignty, which often results in protectionism and stalemate.
For this reason, to share best practices amongst peers, city-based international organizations have been established at an increasing rate. Mayors meet more frequently and put forward more action plans than heads of states do. This trend ties in with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which pertain to leveraging the concept of decentralization to tackle cross-border issues in the domains of labor, education, climate change, health, poverty, and equality in a sustainable way.
Thanks to the excellent citizen literacy of people in Taiwan, selfless health care providers, a top-notch health care system, and a robust economy, Taiwan is hopeful of overcoming this crisis.
As long as we are still wearing masks, we will be reminded to work together to confront the novel, transnational, and ever-changing problems plaguing the globe. New Taipei must and will continue to earn citizens’ trust and to work with cities and partners around the world on the journey of building a better new normal in the post-pandemic era.