By Susan Korah
With Taiwan and Japan achieving impressive results in covid-19 management, the world can learn valuable lessons from these two Asian countries – and from other democratic nations – on how to execute the fine balancing act between public health and civil liberties.
This, and the importance of global cooperation, were key points that emerged in a recent online panel discussion on covid-19, the unprecedented pandemic that caught so many countries unprepared.
Panelists participating in the discussion were the Heads of Mission in Canada of Taiwan, Japan, Germany and Sweden, with Michael Levitt, Chairman of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in the Canadian House of Commons, acting as moderator.
While cautioning that there is no “one-size- fits- all” solution for the whole world, because of different political, economic and social conditions in various countries, Winston Wen-yi Chen, Taiwan’s Representative in Canada, outlined a few key factors that contributed to his country’s success in combatting the deadly pandemic.
“Being prepared in advance, being transparent and giving the public timely health information were key components in keeping covid-19 deaths to just seven in Taiwan,” he said.
Mr. Chen said that although Taiwan has been recognized as one of the most effective in dealing with the pandemic, “there is no clear winner” and that the world is still learning how to deal with a disease that it has never experienced before.
Besides advance preparation, early detection and warning, and timely action were the keys to Taiwan’s success, he said adding that the Taiwan government recognized the importance of balancing public health safety with the expectations of a society accustomed to freedom of movement and other civil liberties.
“Taiwan was able to react quickly and decisively from the beginning because the country had learned hard lessons from the SARS outbreak of 2003 in which 73 people died,” he said. “After SARS, the Taiwan government revised laws, established institutions and strengthened the authority of the Centre for Disease Control,” he explained.
Other key strategies that led to successful outcomes were transparency, and an information campaign that earned the trust and cooperation of the citizens of this democratic county, said Representative Chen.
“By January 20, Taiwan activated its Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), three days before the Wuhan (China) lockdown, with the Minister of Health Dr. Chen Shih-chung as its chief,” said the Taiwanese diplomat. “Dr. Chen has been holding daily press briefings to provide the most up-to-date information. This way we were able to counter any disinformation and win the public’s trust.”
Another contributing factor to Taiwan’s success was the quick mass production of surgical masks, N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment, made possible by the Communicable Disease Control Act, noted Representative Chen.
“Taiwan is determined to create biotech and medical technology industries integrated with the rest of the world, and can be a reliable partner in this for like-minded countries,” he said.
German Ambassador Sabine Sparwasser also referred to the importance of international cooperation
“Even though the pandemic is a global one, everybody (in the EU) snapped back into nationalistic reflexes,” she said. Germany banned exports of protective medical equipment but faced a backlash against this in March. That (banning of exports) is something we would not do again,” she said.
On the positive side, the ambassador said Germany did well in testing and preparing its intensive care units.
Ambassador Sparwasser also emphasized the role of the role of science-based decision making, and gaining public trust through effective communication. “Our citizens have widely respected the lockdown,” she said, attributing some of the citizen cooperation to strong messages delivered by Chancellor Angela Merkel in her calm, measured way.
“What happened in Germany has shown that in countries where the leaders are communicating, where they have science-based decision making, and where they are very transparent, the lockdown works much better,” she said.
Japanese Ambassador Yasuhisa Kawamura agreed with these points. “The political leadership and effective communication based on scientific data are quite important,” he aid.
Ambassador Kawamura also echoed Mr. Chen’s comments on the importance of sharing information and cooperating internationally. He said Japan had called for a new network of like-minded democratic countries to establish a transparent system for sharing property rights regarding vaccine development.
Sweden’s exceptionally soft approach to lockdown and quarantine has generated much debate and controversy around the world.
Swedish Ambassador Urban Ahlin admitted that Sweden had one of the highest rates of coronavirus deaths per capita in the world, with the majority of the 4,100 deaths being traced to elderly care homes.
He said Swedish citizens dislike the idea of state surveillance and would never accept such measures as the use of a contact-tracing app.
“The attention to preparing intensive care units may have been better focused on long-term care homes,” he said.
Representative Chen said that to prepare for another pandemic, we have to restructure the supply chain, reorganize the economy and make sure frontline workers are well protected.
Of the four countries represented in this event, Taiwan is unique in one respect.
Taiwan’s offer to cooperate with the world and share its medical and technological expertise has so far gone unheeded by the World Health Organization, because of political pressure from China, which considers it as a rebel province rather than an autonomous political entity.
Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist who writes on Canadian and international affairs.