By Sonia Su
Table of Contents
The following text introduces four long-time residents of Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, as they live through the Covid-19 pandemic. In conversations conducted via Zoom and Line messaging app, they discuss the effects on their daily routines and work responsibilities, how they keep informed of the latest news and updates domestically and globally, and their thoughts on government actions, especially compared to the 2003 SARS outbreak. While the younger respondents reported having few memories of SARS, which left 73 dead in Taiwan, the retired elementary school teacher recalls exercising similar precautions during that period. Yet, there is a sense among all respondents that this global pandemic has already had far more dire consequences.
Nevertheless, being just 81 miles off the coast of China and expected to have the second highest number of cases, Taiwan has been praised by government and business leaders, media, and observers around the world for its relatively successful prevention and control efforts. As of May 2, 2020, Taiwan has 432 confirmed cases and six deaths, with 20 consecutive days of no local cases and counting. Before May 1, 2020 Taiwan had six successive days of zero new cases—leading many, including these respondents, to believe that life had returned to normal.
The oral history accounts were conducted and recorded via Zoom and Line messaging app, starting from March 30, 2020, and was an ongoing project with updates through early May, the end of the spring 2020 semester. Interviews were conducted in Mandarin Chinese and translated into English. Full transcriptions available here. The participants’ identities are depicted in initials, as to protect their privacy. Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity. All times are listed for UTC+08:00 (time zone in Taiwan).
Sonia Su (S)
M.A. in the Asian Studies Program, Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service
Transcriber and Translator
Occupations: Front-end service staff at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts; Contractor for the Kaohsiung Government
Household: Lives with her partner, J, in a five-floor apartment complex with about five households per floor.
Notes: Returned to Kaohsiung after spending a total of 10 years away (seven years in Taichung, Taiwan; one year traveling across Europe and China; and two years in Kenting, Taiwan). Since the interview, Y has decided to move to Taipei.
Occupation: Retired elementary school teacher
Household: Lives with husband T and daughter YJ in a townhouse within walking distance of the Kaohsiung International Airport.
Occupation: Retired high school teacher
Household: Lives with wife C and daughter YJ in the same townhouse.
Notes: T and C have been married for more than 35 years.
Occupation: Former social worker at a senior care facility
Household: Lives with parents C and T in the townhouse.
Notes: Since the first interview, YJ has quit her employment due to unfair working conditions, unrelated to the pandemic.
Note on Translations
The Taiwanese population, including the government and media, refer to Covid-19 as the “Wuhan pneumonia” in Chinese (武漢肺炎, Wǔhàn fèiyán). The translations here and references to the pandemic use the name as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), in addition to the more general “pandemic,” “outbreak,” “virus,” etc.
Researcher’s comments are italicized.
Interview with Y
Evening, Saturday, March 28, 2020 via Zoom
Y: I now have two jobs: one is a front-end service staff at a state-level art center, part-time. The other job is in government projects. We are entrusted by the government to run some courses [on job training]. It’s for people who are unemployed and are required to take employment training courses to receive government benefits, and they are held in different towns. I am the person who handles the training, so I mostly have been in contact with those people.
Y’s government work started before the pandemic, while her part-time staff position is at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts, or Wuweiying.
S: Has the pandemic affected your work?
Y: It has a big impact. For example, the performances in the art center are almost all canceled. Many of my colleagues in this line of work have lost their jobs. People found out the same day that their performances were cancelled, so that preparation time has been wasted. The ones that hadn’t been canceled had a limit on the number of attendees. We also need a lot of manpower to keep track of the attendees. For example, we have to record their names. In the past, it was impossible for us to keep the contact information and names of the audience members and their travel history. We also have to spend a lot of effort in taking their temperatures. We do these actions to make sure everyone is in the system.
The company needs to pay for its own disinfection equipment. Of course, we can not provide a mask, because masks are now very scarce, but we will request that people wear masks. There will be more contact with a lot of people. And because the government sometimes can’t act as quickly, this week I decided that we would start asking people to bring their own pens to sign in and check out.
Guided by the policy, our work in Weiwuying has been divided into A/B classes, meaning one group will work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the other on Tuesday and Thursday. It becomes very difficult for people to hold a class with everyone when divided like this. They do this to prevent clusters of infections.
H: What about any effects on commute or your social life?
Y: Oh! It has had a very big impact on commute, because I would travel to three or four cities every week to teach classes. I used to take the train, because it is more convenient to get reimbursed that way, and it’s faster. But starting this week, I decided to drive myself to work and bear those extra costs, because I don’t want to commute by train so often.
As for my social life, my friends and I will try to find open-air restaurants. We recently wanted to eat Sichuan cuisine, but we ended up going to a smaller restaurant, where we don’t have to be in the same space with as many people. That was about half a month ago. Now if I were asked to go out to eat, I would probably not go.
Y travels often to Penghu for her contracting job. Restaurants and eateries have no restrictions. Residents can still frequent all businesses.
[People in Penghu] are more arrogant—or maybe I shouldn’t say arrogant, but they are more difficult to get along with. This time I realized that they have become more compassionate. A driver told me that everyone who could get reimbursed [by their employer] took the taxi directly, which was safer [than taking public transportation]. And while waiting on the side of the road, I had pulled my mask off a little to catch my breath, and he was nervous when he saw me, asking if I would go on an airplane without a mask. I said no, I was just getting some air, and besides, I was outdoors, next to the sea.
I also observed, since I serve the unemployed, that they had been strongly looked down upon. They felt that others could not understand the situation of [the unemployed] and that they were cheating people and choosing not to work. But since the outbreak of this pandemic, I feel that many people have become very sympathetic and feel that they are quite miserable. If you see others are suffering, you suffer.
H: It is because they are now affected that people become more compassionate.
Y: Right, right, I think this difference was very noticeable. I was also in contact with a theatre troupe that had a huge performance scheduled last weekend. It was a combination of a Henan opera and Shakespeare play [the Shakespeare play King Lear in the style of a Henan opera]. Then there were related performances that were cancelled, so it was quite a big impact on me.
H: Are there any community-wide policies? For some communities here, buildings will be regularly disinfected, which would have been done in the past, but now it may be more often, like every day.
Y: This is the part that makes me a little anxious, because we are located near the Guang Rong Pier, where there are mainly shipping companies, while we are an NGO that has nothing to do with shipping. The shipping companies have to come into contact with a lot of people. After all, shipping cargo does not stop [even during a pandemic]!
They will emphasize that everyone must wear a mask to enter the elevator. A few days ago, there was a notice in the elevator that said that there is a civil servant from South Korea, and he had been in the elevator without wearing a mask, while others were talking in the elevator without masks, either. Because [the civil servant] was not wearing a mask, he got infected. So please show your virtue, don’t talk in the elevator, and protect the rights of others. However, they then wrote about disinfecting buttons and the like every day, but many people actually don’t care. Everyone still talks inside [closed spaces], like how people have to talk to each other even when they go to the bathroom. They just have to chat in the elevator. Therefore, it may be because the truth is that the pandemic is not that serious in Kaohsiung, so everyone will still retain a little flexibility.
Jessie went to the emergency room a few days ago because of her mother’s diabetes, and only transferred to a normal room a few days ago. She was in intensive care and in the emergency room. There were patients who had been diagnosed, and they didn’t know how many people. So the hospital did get a little nervous during these weeks.
Then there is controlled access. If you want to have someone else visit, you have to give that card to them, and now it’s like a curfew—that is, after eight o’clock, they can’t stay in the hospital except for patients. You can stay inside, but there can only be one person from beginning to end. This was not the case a few days ago.
H: So the visitor who wants to stay there overnight must enter before eight?
Y: Right. The rule seems to have been implemented in the past two days. It seems that there are no issues. My feeling is that the medical environment is quite stable. At first I thought there would be no way to be admitted in the hospital, or to be transferred from the ICU to a normal room, but [Jessie’s mom] quickly managed to even get a single room. It’s wonderful.
H: Some people who need to see a doctor for mild illness are not going now.
Y: I had a friend working in the emergency room of Chang Gung Hospital. When it broke out at the end of January, I watched him wear the bunny-like uniform every day. You know that uniform that covers your whole body and your feet? It was super pitiful and super hot. They have to wear it all day. The emergency room is tiring enough, and they still have to wear it. Staff members in the emergency room have been wearing it since the end of January. And it was worn before the pandemic really broke out.
H: So their reaction was quite fast.
Y: It seems to be part of training. They said they wore it during the training and now they always wear it. I’m guessing they still haven’t taken it off.
I’m also less likely to go to the movies, and I still go to the park. The activities in open areas are not affected, but if it is a closed event, like going to the movies or seeing a theater performance, the latter are of course all canceled but there are still movies playing. We still go to the Kaohsiung Film Archive (This is a popular government-owned movie center in Kaohsiung). Because I have a friend who volunteers there, I just talked to him today. They have a policy this week that each theater can only accept a few people. Then they have partitions. After dividing into six to seven sections, only one person can sit in a section. They used this method to disperse the audience. They said that this policy was fun to implement, anyway, since no one went to watch movies, and then the morning showings were cancelled.
S: Where did you go when you last left the house? What were things like? Did you meet or talk to people?
Y: I just went to work for a show. The show was cancelled, and then we had a few staff on the scene, so that people who didn’t know could receive some refund information, and then I just talked to my colleagues about what impact their departments have had.
S: What contact have you had with health services or authorities there?
Y: Because I personally like to hoard things, my family currently has no shortage of masks, so I have not retrieved this batch of masks. But I always follow Masks 1.0, 2.0, Mask Maps, and so on (These are websites that allow residents to track mask supplies in nearby stores. Each adult resident was initially allocated three masks per week). I heard they worked pretty well. But I still see many older people waiting in line at the pharmacy to get a mask, and then Jessie said that there should be a way to eliminate the psychological anxiety. She thinks that she will be fine. Now it seems that it is not so difficult to get a mask, but because I have to have be in contact with people often, I bought some mask covers.
H: Mask covers? What do you mean?
Y: Let me show you. You don’t know, right? This is very popular in Taiwan now. Everyone has it. It’s a sleeve, and then we can put our surgical mask inside so that it can be reused.
H: I don’t quite understand what the mask cover is for.
Y: Generally, you can only use a mask once, but now it is stipulated that you can not enter buildings without a mask, but for restaurants, you can [go in without a mask], but if it is not a place mainly for eating, such as a library—I passed Dadong Library that day and wanted to go in, but I forgot to wear a mask—because I just wanted to throw away garbage and I didn’t wear a mask, so I didn’t go in.
Everywhere requires you to wear a mask to get in, so [this cover] would make the mask less expensive. But for example, Jessie goes to the hospital and she will use the mask and of course throw it away there and not bring it back. But if it is for daily use, then many people in Taiwan use this method. Many younger kids also have one, and theirs are beautiful and very trendy.
H: Is there any difference between this and reusing a regular mask?
Y: When you speak, the humidity will make [a regular] mask very wet, and then it will be disgusting. But if you use this, the moisture from talking will be absorbed by the mask cover, [so you] just go back [home] and wash the mask cover. Then it can be reused.
S: So you have to wash it every day?
Y: Right. I bought two or three, but I think many people won’t wash it every day. Another thing is that this is more beautiful. Many of them use more beautiful fabric. Mask covers are now very, very popular in online shopping.
H: I had no idea.
Y: Kids get five, so it may be insufficient. [Teachers] are asked to wear masks for class. There is really no way for them to lecture, because there is no way to use a wet mask, so they must have a mask cover. I used to despise this cover. When it first came out, I thought it was stupid because there are so many masks in our house. But since we have only 50 masks in my house, I started to get nervous, because I didn’t want to go [wait] in line, so I started to buy mask covers.
H: In addition to talking about wearing masks, the government has said to wash hands frequently. This is very basic. Are there any other special policies and announcements?
Y: They said there was no need to hoard things. Although the elderly have always been seriously hoarding things, there is still a need to eliminate fake news.
I know that [Taiwanese citizens abroad] been persuaded to come back last week, unless that’s your permanent residence. Then [they] did not want to come back, fearing that they would get infected on the plane. Didn’t people say that if you want to take a plane, you just need to wear a diaper [to avoid going to the bathroom], and not eat or drink? Then they just didn’t come back. I said, wouldn’t the ticket price just go up? Well, it has gone up now and they will not come back.
S: On which platform do you see the most news or most interesting news?
Y: Because the information is so overwhelming, now I can only follow the “Disease Manager.” Every day it releases the latest domestic and foreign reports and some policies. Other than that, I rarely see other news. It’s too messy.
“Disease Manager” is a Line messaging bot, created in 2017 for influenza and dengue fever and managed by the government, now sharing daily updates on Covid-19 cases and other important announcements and information related to all diseases.
S: Have you been closely following the responses in other countries or cities?
Y: In the beginning, we followed some news, such as how China supposedly halted work [factory production], but then in Wuhan there was still very serious air pollution. I didn’t continue to follow this news, and it seemed like such news stopped coming from China.
But I have joined some cross-strait exchange groups on Facebook, where Chinese people attack Taiwanese people. So I will look at that. I think it is interesting to see what they think now. Then I just read more Facebook groups with some Taiwanese in Europe and Taiwanese in the United States. For example, a while ago I was concerned about a girl in Britain. She had been diagnosed [with Covid-19] and kept a diary of her own treatment at home. Then I saw some bloggers in Spain who also talked about their family’s diagnosis and then wanted to find a way [to receive treatment]. Other news that I inevitably saw were the British Prime Minister getting infected and Merkel’s self isolation.
S: Have you experienced anything like this before? What do you recall about the effects of SARS on your day-to-day life in 2003?
Y: I was in Kaohsiung. It was during middle school. I actually forgot a little, because I don’t think it had any effect. I met my colleague today and I asked him what effect it had. He said he remembered having to wear masks when he went to the cram school, but I’ve forgotten, because it seems that it was more serious in Taipei.
H: Is your colleague from Taipei?
Y: No, she is a Kaohsiung resident.
H: So at that time, you had to wear masks in the Kaohsiung cram school?
Y: He said he was wearing a mask in his cram school, but I have no impression whatsoever.
H: I was also in Kaohsiung at the time, but I also have no recollection.
S: Do you have a favorite place that you frequented before the outbreak? What has happened to it now?
Y: I would always go to the theater where I work. Now we have started to make some announcements. There are no performances now, so we do random temperature checks. The first floor of Weiwuying is an open space, and then we will randomly place four or five people over there to help the passers-by take their temperatures. Isn’t it crazy? To persuade them not to come out and hang out.
H: Will passersby cooperate?
Y: Yes, we need them to cooperate.
S: Which lessons from Taiwan’s Covid-19 experience do you believe are most transferable internationally?
Y: Don’t ignore viruses from China.
H: I personally did not think of this answer.
Y: Do you mean what we learned from the United States? It would be better if you did not choose a stupid president. But I think the British strategy is quite strong—they know their national character very well!
H: What do you mean?
Y: From what I understand about England, I think they really understand their people. When I first heard about that policy [on “herd immunity” and letting people die], I thought it was crazy, but I slowly realized that what they did was right. English people are difficult … and such a policy would really make people care.
H: I have also heard of this thing—that is, they will not listen to you unless you scare them.
H: Regarding Europe, you seem to have a lot of…
H: When I read a lot of news, I feel that these people are actually not afraid. Even in this situation, I still hear that many people are having parties.
Y: Because they really love parties! This is a national difference. I really can’t stand [staying up so late to party].
H: I can’t [either, but] you can ask me to play games until six o’clock in the morning.
Y: So the Taiwanese are still staying at home. Are you saying that this time our epidemic prevention was successful because we are zhai?
宅男 or zháinán refers to a male who spends a lot of time a home, typically playing online games; derived from Japanese “otaku.”
H: I think whether or not you fear SARS is another thing, but I just don’t love going out! So if you want to suddenly tell me that we can’t go out? It doesn’t matter if I’m already at home all day.
Y: My brother works in a nightclub in Taipei and goes there every day. I asked him if he still goes. He said that all of them wore masks. I asked if the whole nightclub is wearing a mask. He said yes, then I said how do you drink? He said that he just plugged the straw through the mask and drank. People just still go! But it seems that the business had been getting worse and worse, and then I guess a government unit had some coordination, so they announced the closure of the business two days ago.
H: So people who like to go out still want to go out.
H: People say there is no need to wear a mask here [in the United States]. Although many people talk about masks on the Internet, it still has its use, but I don’t think the government will publicize this matter. I think it has little use on the general public. People who care will still pay attention, but if you don’t extensively follow the government’s announcements, you don’t know…
Y: I saw a video a few days ago and I think it was quite practical. [A doctor] took a medical mask and poured water over it from the faucet. And the water wouldn’t leak. It was the side facing outwards. And then he asked his assistant to spray the mask with that alcohol, and then the mask leaked like crazy. He then said so don’t spray alcohol on your mask, because some people think that masks can still be used after [alcoholic] disinfection.
I have paid attention to many doctors. They will say that people who wear masks need to press down the mask at the bridge of their nose, because many people wear them carelessly. A lot of people will expose their noses and feel like this gives more ventilation. I think Taiwanese are really good. That is to say, they are very cooperative, although they will quietly complain. You will eventually persuade them, such as when I told people that they need to bring their pens, and they thought they needed to write down notes. I told them that it was because it’s safer to use their own pens now, and sign in with their own pens. They would say, okay okay okay, and then they would turn their whole bag inside out, just to look for their pens.
H: They feel like complaining but will still—
Y: We will still cooperate. When Taiwan had its first infections at the end of January, at first, everyone was very nervous. As soon as the government told people to wear masks and that there was this virus, the next day—it was miraculous—everyone wore them.
H: Well, everyone has them at home.
Y: But every single person on the street was wearing them! How are people that good?
H: Taiwanese people are afraid to die.
Y: Super cooperative!
Then at that time, the elders in Line group chats in Taiwan would still share some fake news, asking the people to clean their nose with cotton swabs and vinegar, saying that this can prevent the virus. It is more often advertised that the mask should be pressed against the bridge of the nose; otherwise, it is the same as not wearing it. I think the news is more controllable, because we have just experienced the penetration of fake news from the presidential election in early January before the outbreak, so they already have a system to control [fake news].
Y: We have that anti-rumor bot Aunt Meiyu*, and then Audrey Tang became popular. I think Audrey Tang is really as popular as Chen Chi-chung this time, because Su Tseng-chang is already popular, but Audrey Tang is a celebrity.
H: Aunt Meiyu means that if you add a robot called Aunt Meiyu to your Line, then if you send a fake message on it today, Aunt Meiyu will automatically tell you that this is fake.
Y: He will refute rumors. This robot will explain the correct information to you. Then for a while, the elders said that Aunt Meiyu was Audrey Tang’s spy, who would brainwash you and then paralyze you. I think that the difference in information recognition ability is related to education level.
Didn’t I tell you before about the Qin Dynasty and Chu Kingdom? All of my Chinese department classmates from college are sharing this news, and all are saying that Wuhan will get revenge. Wuhan people are aggressive. The history of China is that for as long as Beijing has been in power, those who have successfully overthrown Beijing have been rebels from Wuhan. The Qin Dynasty was overthrown by the Chu Kingdom.
Anyway, Wuhan and Beijing are in a feud, so this time Beijing gave up on Wuhan, and we don’t know what will happen. When I was in China, I listened to my friends telling me that there were feelings of civil war at any time. Look at the “No Extradition to China” (A slogan that arose from the ongoing Hong Kong protests against China’s extradition bill.) People who study China say that China has a history of two thousand years. In the past two thousand years, revolutions in China were due to famine. A while ago, people were talking about the locust plague going to China, but the epidemic has been completely covered up, so we’ll see how their foodstuffs and water supply are affected.
The locust plague is a devastating natural disaster of crop-killing insects that is currently ravaging parts of East Africa and Pakistan.
Y: Jessie also saw a lot of news that said that what is happening in 2020 is actually a Third World War or a cold war. She said it was not a cold war but biochemical warfare or information warfare and that we are actually in war now.
H: Because more and more news from China says that the United States is a little overwhelmed now, China is beginning to make a statement that the United States has lost its status as an international hegemon.
Y: Information war!
H: China said that the United States was indeed greatly affected by this pandemic, and now it is getting worse and worse.
Y: Weren’t Chinese people clamoring about patient No. 0 coming from the United States, saying that the U.S. military went to Wuhan and they released it? [China] just loves to do things like this, but in fact, Taiwan has already experienced this [disinformation], and the Kuomintang was defeated by this [during the Chinese Civil War]. The CCP has always been the best [in the information war]. Frankly, I really think it’s pretty powerful. China doesn’t need soldiers—maybe I can’t say no soldiers, because a lot of people have died—but China can easily affect a lot of people that can’t be affected in a real war.
Regarding the use of “information war”, this refers more to attacks of “disinformation” or “misinformation”, including the tactics of cyberwarfare.
* Aunt Meiyu is the name of the Line messaging bot that Taiwanese residents can add and use to help discern which news is genuine and which is fake. “Meiyu” is a common name for aunts in Taiwan—similar to “Mary”. Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s digital minister, who has become very popular among Taiwan watchers abroad and the younger Taiwanese population, for her ideas on “digital democracy” and for leading the “electronic fence” initiative. She had been a civic hacker before serving her current role in the government starting in 2016.
Chen Chi-chung is the son of former president Chen Shui-bian. Su Tseng-chang is the premier of Taiwan.
Interview with C
Morning, Sunday, March 29, 2020 via Zoom
S: How has Covid-19 affected your life?
C: The first impact is that I have to disinfect every morning, from the door to all the places where I can touch my hands. And then I have to mop the floor every day. Then the other thing is that before, I would just go to the places I usually frequent. Now if I want to go out, I will consider whether there are many people in this place, and then wear a mask.
H: Do other people also disinfect every day like you?
C: Most people will. Because people still have that kind of preparedness mindset—that doing a good job will be safer.
H: How is the situation in your community?
C: At present, our community has not heard of a case of quarantine or infection. So most people’s lives are still quite normal, but there are quite a few people wearing masks, almost all of them—unless you go to the park or track, where fewer people wear them. Otherwise people generally wear them when they go out to meet others.
H: Has your frequency of going out changed compared to before?
C: Yes, quite a lot. For example, I used to do volunteer work every day, but now the volunteers have stopped. I used to go to class every week, but now all classes are changed to online classes at home. Then sometimes I would like to go somewhere for a walk, and then think about how it may be dangerous and then don’t go.
S: So how do you feel about the current situation?
C: Of course it feels dull—not very good. Especially when you see that the number of diagnoses has been rising, of course you will be more worried, but Taiwan is basically doing well, and the control measures are fine. But you will also see world news, and when you see that, it really feels pretty scary.
S: What did you do last time you went out? Did you chat with others?
C: Yes, I go to Leezen [organic market] to buy vegetables. I know all those people. I used to volunteer with them, so of course I would chat with them, but I was wearing a mask and chatting.
H: All the people over there also wear masks?
C: They all wear masks.
H: Have masks been worn before? Are they still worn now?
C: I didn’t before. It’s a rule now, so all shop assistants must wear masks.
S: I heard that the Taiwanese government will give people who need to be quarantined items such as masks and food. Have you been in contact with the health bureau?
C: No, only if people need to self quarantine. When you come back from abroad and need to be quarantined, the government will give you some things. It is called a pandemic prevention bag and contains some food, things you need, and a mask. Then if you apply to be quarantined, the government will give you 1,000 yuan a day. If you stay at home for 14 days according to the rules, then you can receive NTD $14,000.
S: Has the Taiwanese government advocated social distancing?
C: Yes. Just over one meter, and don’t shake hands. We don’t hug here. We don’t have the habit of hugging, but we just have the habit of shaking hands, so now they just tell you not to shake hands, and the best distance is one meter or more to maintain a safe distance.
H: It’s farther here! Here it’s two meters. Six feet is almost two meters.
C: Because none of you wear masks! We all wear masks.
H: Maybe because the people here are taller, one meter may be too close.
C: People should wear masks with others, unless they’re family, they all wear masks.
S: Did you try anything new because of the pandemic?
C: Online classes. There were no online classes before.
H: This is also my first time taking online classes. I hadn’t taken online classes before.
C: Now I will take the classes online, and then discuss online, kind of like a meeting.
H: What kind of software is it?
C: What software do we use? We use Zoom.
H: This one we’re using now?
H: So trendy! Really. I didn’t know that Taiwan also uses Zoom.
C: We’ve used it for a long time!
H: Huh, I really don’t know!
C: Even before the pandemic, we did our [Buddhist] morning study using this software.
H and I were surprised to learn that C had been long using a software that most Americans were just getting used to.
S: On which platform do you see the most interesting information about the pandemic?
C: We usually use the Internet, because the government will report on the pandemic every day at 2 p.m. Then we will also go online to read news from some countries around the world. For example, there was someone who licked the toilet and got infected the next day. He thought that he would not [get infected]. Then he licked the toilet and then got it the next day. Then because the Italian mayors couldn’t control people from not going out, they still found various excuses to leave their homes. So the mayors were very angry and scolded them for how they usually would go running with only 20 people, and then once the pandemic hit, hundreds of people started running together. We likely would see this kind of news.
S: So do you remember SARS in 2003? Which city were you in?
C: I was in Kaohsiung City, and I was still teaching. At that time, before we went to school every morning, we had to take our own temperature first and write it down. If your temperature was high, then you couldn’t go to school. And because I was a teacher, I had to clean after the children go home every day.
H: I have no impression of that time—that is, people of our age have basically no recollection of SARS.
C: The situation of SARS at that time was not as serious as it is now. The epidemic now looks more serious than SARS. Because at that time you only had SARS if you had a fever, so we all knew that someone would be infectious only if he had a fever. So we didn’t wear masks at that time. This time is different. This time, many people who are asymptomatic will also be infected.
H: Did SARS have any other impact on life at that time? Do you still remember what the government policies were?
C: SARS had stricter controls on hospitals at that time. Because the epidemic occurred for the first time at that time, everyone was trying to figure out what to do, so there were people infected who were traveling from the north to Kaohsiung at that time, so it eventually came to Chang Gung Hospital [in Kaohsiung]. The situation this time is because some people have no symptoms at all and they can travel around. That is the terrible part.
C is a regular unpaid volunteer at her local Leezen organic market, which belongs to a larger Buddhist organization, for which she also conducts other volunteer work. This pandemic has put a pause to her volunteer work, while her Buddhist classes have switched online via Zoom.
Most of the places I go to are to go buy food and the Leezen store. I now tell myself that every visit I will buy a lot of items, so the number of visits has become fewer.
H: Are there any disinfection measures in Leezen?
C: They take your temperature at the door and give you hand sanitizer. This is the case in almost every place now. If you want to go in, someone will first take your temperature and will let you in if you don’t have a fever, and then spray your hands with sanitizer—the most basic.
S: Do you remember when these measures started?
C: Actually, as soon as this pandemic happened, almost all places in Taiwan did so as long as it was a place where the general public would enter and leave. We are very careful, because this pandemic is infectious. Then there are some places that are more rigorous—that is, you have to write down your information: where you live and your phone number. It means that in case someone was in this place, they could find those people who had come in and out of this place, so this is how they maintained control. So we are very careful.
Taiwan responded quickly. Because during SARS, everyone was scared to death, so we are very rigorous when such things happen.
H: Did SARS have such a quick response?
C: SARS did not receive such a fast response, so it killed a bunch of people. Didn’t it originate from the hospital? That matter is still under review, and I feel that it has not been done well.
H: No, it has been reviewed. It’s Ma Ying-jeou’s responsibility.
Ma Ying-jeou was the mayor of Taipei City during SARS, following which he became Taiwan’s president. Some people believed that under his leadership, more deaths occurred as a result of his quarantine of Heping Hospital.
S: Why do you think other countries have not responded as quickly as Taiwan?
C: I was thinking that the first reason is the habit of not wearing a mask in many countries has had a great impact. The other is nationality, because I heard an Italian was asked not to hug or kiss on the cheek for epidemic prevention. He actually replied, “No, if I can’t hug or kiss on the cheek, I am not human.” I think this concept is really very, very different from how we think. We will think that to save your life, you should not be hugging. If there are no infections the next day, can you still not hug? Why do you have to? He said no, he must hug. Because of this lifestyle and attitude, it affects this pandemic.
It may be too much freedom, so even if you are told not to go out, you have to go out. Now the United Kingdom also said to use heavy penalties. [The prime minister] originally said to have everyone infected. After the infection, it would be all right. As a result, the prime minister himself was also infected. His prince was also infected. It’s very dangerous, because they are all in their 70s, and the elderly have poor immunity and are more susceptible to die, so it is very dangerous.
So nationality is one factor, and life habits may also be the cause of such a serious infection. Now when I look at New York, I am scared. It’s terrible!
H: A comment on nationality: Taiwanese people are afraid to die.
C: Are people from other countries not afraid? When the prime minister said that, I thought: if you say this now, if someone in your family is affected, will you still say this? At that time, he said that because it had nothing to do with himself. Now, if he is infected himself, will he still say this? He must not dare to say this again.
C expresses a strong sense of collectivism, opposing what she believes is a negative Western concept of individualism.
S: After this pandemic, do you think there will be any changes in the world?
C: I think this is a good opportunity for Taiwan to get ahead. I think the only thing in Taiwan that is less [good] is that there are some weak links, who, if required to be quarantined, will just go everywhere. If everyone follows the government’s orders, Taiwan’s regulations should be very, very good. Such a situation can be used as a model for all countries in the world. If countries around the world can learn from Taiwan, then we would not have situations as terrible as those dead in Italy. Or like New York! That should be a help for Taiwan as a whole. That would be great, because Taiwan can become independent and everyone can know that Taiwan is a country, so I am the most hopeful.
S: Anything else you want to tell us?
C: Actually, I also want to say: I hope this epidemic will make people all over the world realize that we have been chasing materialism, chasing numbers, [and] chasing this so-called freedom. To think about it now, it doesn’t sound right. Because people eat everything, even bats. Although I’m not saying that’s how [the virus] came, you can see from there [the Wuhan Seafood Market], everything that flies, crawls on the ground, or drills through the mud. Everything is dug up to eat. Is this necessary? It should be unnecessary! So humans should reflect on this. Just like the Taiwanese, the epidemic has already happened and people still travel everywhere, which I don’t understand! Obviously cases are everywhere, you still travel everywhere—is it necessary for you? This is unnecessary. The best thing about this is that everyone can think about it: what can really be done; what can actually be done. Then for all animals, all living things, whether they are animals or plants, we can all have more compassionate hearts. Respecting everything—this is what I hope for the most.
Evening, Monday, April 6, 2020 via Line messaging app
Responses address this article by Central News Agency reporter Siyun Su: Wuhan pneumonia / electronic tracking system information is all exposed
S: Have you seen this article or heard someone discuss this topic? What do you think about it?
C: A small amount of privacy exposure during the pandemic prevention is necessary. With Taiwan’s approach, I think it is acceptable. It’s like when the building administrator in northern Taiwan got infected, many people asked for the name of the building to be announced. However, the pandemic prevention team still chose not to announce it when it felt that it would not help. The Korean approach has no privacy whatsoever. Maybe there are too many cases, so they have their considerations. But the diagnosed person might have a miserable life!
Interview with YJ
Morning, Sunday, March 29, 2020 via Zoom
YJ expresses strong pro-Taiwanese government views, even wearing a “Taiwan independence” shirt during our first interview. As such, she believes the so-called “electronic fence” is justified. This is a system that gives government officials the right with the consent of the quarantined to track their whereabouts via cell phone.
S: Do you think wearing a mask is effective?
YJ: I think it is to protect yourself and others. When we work in the senior home, we will contact many patients. In fact, others will be afraid of us, so we’ve been wearing masks for a long time. The less convenient part is that the weather in the south is hotter, so it will be just a little more annoying.
H: Do you know about mask covers?
YJ: Yes, companies also give them out. The number of masks is definitely not enough. It looks like the government is currently issuing three masks a week. Then we must wear them every day at work, but you have only three masks for five days at work, so you will use a mask cover to extend the life of the mask.
After this interview, Taiwan revised the mask distribution to nine masks per adult resident, every two weeks. For children under 16 years old, they can receive 10 masks every two weeks.
S: How do you feel about the current situation?
YJ: Actually, we are still quite at ease with regard to government control, because the Ministry of Health and Welfare will hold a press conference every day at 2 p.m. So there is at least one time, then if there are special events, there may be [conferences] two or three times a day. So we still have very clear information about the pandemic, so we are quite at ease.
S: What did you do when you last went out?
YJ: Last time I went to Taichung by a high-speed rail for a date, so I definitely went to crowded places. But actually, when people are outdoors—for example, when I went hiking, people didn’t wear masks. It means that masks will not be worn in relatively empty areas, but masks will be worn when entering places such as department stores or more crowded areas.
S: Do you think other countries should follow Taiwan’s mask distribution efforts?
YJ: I think this part of [people in] Taiwan wearing masks is doing quite well. For example, if you look at international news, there is news that some people are hoarding masks and others have none. Taiwan has been controlling the number of masks from an early period so that everyone can get the masks equally. This is pretty good. No hoarding will happen.
H: What do you think countries can learn from Taiwan’s pandemic prevention?
YJ: I think sometimes [other countries] believe in the WHO too much. It is like when the WHO said at the beginning that this may be a small regional infectious disease, and it will not become a global pandemic. They always felt that this was just a small incident and did not take it seriously. That’s what the WHO said at the beginning. In fact, Taiwan has never been able to join the WHO and has become very self-reliant, so we strongly do not believe in the WHO and thus started to prepare for this very early.
I have read some reports of foreigners being asked why they are not wearing masks or preparing for the pandemic. They said that the WHO said it was not necessary and it would not be transmitted here, so they don’t need to do anything special or change [their behavior]. So I think their response is too slow. It is because of this incident that the government should be suspicious of them, and they must have the ability to judge this incident.
I don’t believe in Chinese news [news coming from China]. A lot of the news in China is fake, just like they now say they have zero confirmed cases and they are all from abroad—we have a very big question mark on this matter. We totally do not believe this. We instead would believe that they did not do any testing, so that’s why there are not more cases. China directly shut the people in their own homes when they first closed the city in Wuhan. We feel that there should still be more cases, and it’s just that the officials have not announced them.
H: But even people from abroad will not understand this matter. All they can see is the WHO. What they can hear is the situation of their own government and WHO. If someone has a special understanding of the situation in Asia or China, they would understand how serious the virus is. So from beginning to end, WHO has long become a CHO (China Health Organization), but no one knows.
YJ: Because their main source of information is still the WHO, so the response to this pandemic is so slow.
Afternoon, Tuesday, April 7, 2020 via Zoom
Responses address this article by Central News Agency reporter Siyun Su: Wuhan pneumonia / electronic tracking system information is all exposed
S: Have you read this article or heard someone discuss this topic? What do you think about it?
YJ: In response to this news, I made a few comments:
The first is about how the Korean government publishes all the details of the confirmed cases that have unexpectedly triggered the debate on the protection of personal privacy and the choice of pandemic prevention. I think that the Korean government’s public disclosure of the details of the diagnosed people violates the right to personal privacy, which is very harmful to the diagnosed persons, who will recover in the future. Taiwan has always been quite protective of diagnosed people, insisting on not disclosing details of their itinerary. But if the actual infected person is afraid of being exposed and wants to hide their condition, that may cause a greater breach [in pandemic defense].
Previously, Taiwan only announced the routes of an infected person when it was unclear who the infected person had contacted—such as the Diamond Princess tourist route, the first death with the Taichung illegal taxi driver, and the route of illegal foreign labor in the 32nd case. The panic psychology of the general public will cause nationality to tear [disintegrate], just like overseas students who have recently returned to the country. Some people have been abused online, or they have been labeled [as foreigners]. I think that when people are in danger, we should think more rationally and be more empathetic, instead of judging others. If today, those people abroad [overseas Taiwanese] were your family and friends, I believe you will also hope that they will come back to Taiwan and be protected by Taiwan. Therefore, hatred and labeling are unnecessary. We should work together to overcome this difficulty.
Next is the “Electronic Fence Smart Tracking System.” I think this is the necessary evil of pandemic prevention, which is regarded as combat. The purpose of electronic tracking is to prevent the pandemic and control all the people who need quarantine. If the people can overcome the difficulties and believe that, the pandemic will pass quickly, but if people are not cooperating, then we can, of course, use the electronic fence intelligent tracking system to determine whether they have left their locations. When they leave the range, a warning will pop up, connecting personal information and footprints. The system’s authority is limited to the CDC and its authorized officials, mainly the top commanders of counties, cities, and ministries. And the first-line personnel at the grassroots level can only see the alarm notification and the name, telephone, and address of the quarantined, which is used only during quarantine.
Jack Ru, a Kuomintang legislator, questioned whether electronic tracking practices violated personal privacy rights, and some scholars worried whether the current legal interpretation would be unlimited: “To push it to the extreme point, would we control all Taiwanese people to stay at home for 14 days in the future?” Taiwan’s CECC mentioned in a press conference that there are currently no local infections in Taiwan, only imported cases, so there is no need to close the city or the country. As long as everyone can maintain a social distance, wash hands frequently, reduce the number of places where people come and go to gather, and the people that need to be quarantined at home are obeying the law, then the pandemic can be controlled.
Article 8 of the “Special Regulations for the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Severe Special Infectious Pneumonia” also clearly states that during the period of pandemic prevention, for those who are subject to quarantine and have violated the quarantine or quarantine order or may have violated it, the CECC may instruct them to submit a video recording, photography, or publish of his personal data or other necessary prevention and control measures.
The personal data is processed in accordance with the relevant regulations on personal data protection at the end of the epidemic. Therefore, I think the “Electronic Fence Smart Tracking System” is a good measure to protect all Taiwanese during the pandemic prevention.
Finally, He Ming-Syuan, deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Human Rights Promotion Association, mentioned, “Now all countries are counted as affected areas, can we consider including their international travel history without knowing which countries?” I think this is wrong. Since the development of new coronaviruses, there have been many different symptoms, and different types of new coronaviruses in different countries also have different mutations. Therefore, listing countries will help doctors to diagnose the symptoms. In addition, the use of health insurance cards are only used to see doctors and pick up medication, so the general public has no way to obtain personal information. In order to enable doctors to better understand the status of patients and protect personal life and health, there should be cross-department cooperation to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Interview with T
Morning, Sunday, March 29, 2020 via Zoom
T: We will be afraid, and even when we go out and wear a mask, we are still afraid. The opportunity for proliferation will decline. Today is Sunday, and I still went to my classmates’ home to make tea on Friday night. I was also afraid!
I have a classmate who has a disability. He can’t go out and has to stay at home every day. He invited us to go and we went. I didn’t really dare to drink the tea, chatting here and there—in that case, we did not wear a mask. He invites people like us who seldom go out. He does not invite people who have a job, because they are more likely to have spent more time outside. So this is our situation.
Evening, Monday, April 6, 2020 via Line messaging app
T, a retired high school teacher, shares the views of his wife and daughter when saying people should not fear that such measures will lead to unlimited legal interpretation of the law. Whereas the South Korea model publicizes people’s location data, only officials have access in Taiwan. T says that health units appoint neighbors to supervise those in quarantine, with the understanding that prevention is the priority. He thinks that the fears that this could set a precedent for future government control are greatly exaggerated, and his family agrees that some privacy rights should be given up for public health.
Responses address this article by Central News Agency reporter Siyun Su: Wuhan pneumonia / electronic tracking system information is all exposed
S: Have you seen this article or heard someone discuss this topic? What do you think about it?
T: South Korea shows on the map the route taken by the case from a bird’s eye view, which exposes the privacy of the individual. Taiwan’s quarantine is only for home quarantine. The health unit appoints the neighbor to supervise, and makes inquiries from time to time to ensure that the patients stay in isolation. There is a fine of NT$1 million.
Health officials and neighbors have the responsibility to protect personal privacy, but the neighbors will know that there are members of the family who travel abroad or study abroad, so only some people will know who is separated from the family at home, and they must not publish it. Priority is given to pandemic prevention.
People contacted by patients diagnosed with the virus should be quarantined at home, and the quarantine list is kept secret by the official and the lieutenant. In theory, it is 14 days of quarantine at home, and there is no infringement of personal privacy. However, because no one is monitoring the system, the system will only pop up with the warning when leaving the range. According to the law, the patient’s whereabouts will be recorded in real time, and the health unit will track and confirm the contacts of the patient and be included in the home quarantine list to prevent breaches.
Taiwan’s opposition party legislators irrationally exaggerate [the potential for future government control]. How can we give everyone a trackable cell phone? [Such tracking] is only in accordance with the Epidemic Prevention Act.
T agrees that those under quarantine are indeed protected by the current privacy and data protection laws, as well as the Constitution, which is not violated during this period of prevention.
The health insurance card shows visits to medical centers and mainly prevents the repeated waste of medical resources. There is indeed a problem of privacy violation, and recording international travel is really unnecessary. Of course, it is necessary for the legal profession to amend the laws to balance pandemic prevention and privacy.
Taiwan acted quickly in implementing inspection measures upon receiving news of Wuhan’s first cases in December. A few weeks later, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) was established and announced the first confirmed imported case. With Covid-19, the efficient implementation of surveillance, contact tracing, and quarantines within 50 days helped to increase the country’s resilience.
By March, as other countries scrambled to control the outbreak, reports praised the “Taiwan Model.” Soon enough, there was a surge of cases among those returning from Europe and North America. By the end of March, the Trump administration signed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019. The administration further announced its support for Taiwan’s recognition in international organizations like the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organization, both of which have notoriously denied Taiwan’s participation, even during such a serious global health threat.
Indeed, respondents, especially Y, express distrust in the WHO. Y tends to view the pandemic from a more political perspective. In fact, she says Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO actually has helped Taiwan to rely more on the country’s own expertise and measures, fostering a distrust of WHO’s belated guidelines.
Yet, as in South Korea, a significant feature of controlling the pandemic has involved the so-called “electronic fence.” The family believes that what has been seen as an invasive measure is justified, as it gives government officials the right with the consent of the quarantined to track their whereabouts via cell phone.
In response to questions about their media diet, the interviewees revealed extensive knowledge of cases both domestically and globally. Especially in light of reports from Europe and the United States of people ignoring social distancing guidelines, for example, C expresses a distaste for Westerners’ “excessive” freedom. As a devout follower of Buddhism, she attributes the relative success of Taiwan’s control efforts to Taiwanese society’s sense of collectivism. Moreover, when describing Taiwan’s own cases, the respondents could all point to specific cases that they had learned from news reports shared on social media.
Rather than rely on the media and other sources of what Y calls “messy” news, the respondents all point to the daily briefings from the CDC and CECC, which allow them to receive timely and informative updates. These are delivered via bot systems on the popular Line messaging app. On April 8, 2020, the CECC announced another Line bot called Disease Containment Expert, allowing those in home quarantine to voluntarily report their health status daily to authorities, as well as receive more information on disease prevention.
Along with distribution of masks, timely technological releases that allow for better dissemination of news while countering “fake” news helped to reduce panic and panic buying. On the morning of April 10, 2020, C even said during a Line video call, “Everything is normal here.” Such a comment reflects the overarching sense of calm from the respondents during such unprecedented times. By the time Taiwan could boast six consecutive days of zero new cases (before three imported cases were confirmed on May 2), C expressed a return to normalcy.
Due to the proactive nature of the national and local governments during these times, the respondents are confident that other countries do have much to learn from Taiwan, while feeling increasingly assured about their own safety. As the death toll and number of cases continue to rise around the world, the efforts in Taiwan may indeed prove to be a valuable model.
English Interactive Timeline: How Taiwan is Keeping Covid-19 at Bay
Chinese Infographic: “新冠肺炎 台灣疫情數據” by UDN News.
Key for Daily Cases
Green: Local cases
Red: Imported cases
Yellow: Other (e.g., Navy members aboard the Panshi Fast Combat Support Ship)