Early in the year, as the virus spread in China, scientists anticipated that Taiwan could have the world’s second-worst outbreak, given its location and the frequency of daily flights from China, according to a March article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Instead, the opposite happened, as Taiwan harnessed lessons from past epidemics and took the virus seriously from the start. And while many countries that initially averted large outbreaks in the spring saw cases surge this summer or autumn, Taiwan has continued to stave off the worst of the pandemic.
As soon as China first reported to the World Health Organization in late December that a mysterious pneumonia-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, Taiwan began screening passengers on flights from the city. Having already experienced the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which also was first reported in China, the island had the foresight and infrastructure to mobilize a fast response.
During the early, high-stakes period when the coronavirus was gaining footholds from Milan to New York City, Taiwan took few chances. By late January, the government was using records from its national health system to identify people who had recently developed respiratory problems and test them for the novel coronavirus. Officials used immigration databases to prioritize testing people who had recently traveled to hot spots.
“Taiwan quickly mobilized and instituted specific approaches for case identification, containment, and resource allocation to protect the public health,” the JAMA article said.
The island has also relied heavily on technology and public trust, tracking people once they cross the border to ensure they comply with the 14-day quarantine requirement, and creating an app that allowed residents to check which pharmacies had masks in stock. An article published this month in the Lancet notes that the island “had an established culture of face mask use” that meant many people began wearing masks in public before they were officially required to do so — and that the government was quick to ramp up production and form a plan to distribute masks to all residents.
Many experts have praised Taiwanese officials for acknowledging the dangers posed by the virus from the start — which may have been a crucial factor in stopping its spread.