Taiwan is an nation of almost 24 million people, squeezed onto an island the size of Maryland. It’s barely a hundred miles from China with regular flights to Wuhan, the generally-accepted epicenter of the global Coronavirus pandemic.
Yet the country has only recorded 429 cases of the virus. And just six Taiwanese citizens have succumbed to it. It may even allow travel this May holiday weekend.
What happened? Firstly, it acted swiftly: Doctors from Taiwan visited Wuhan late last year, when reports emerged of a novel respiratory illness the Chinese government tried to suppress.
By January 1st Taiwan’s experts were boarding flights from Wuhan, to check on passengers’ symptoms. Lockdown, quarantines and mass-purchasing of protective gear happened before countries in Europe even realized what was happening.
Technology—medical and otherwise—then took center stage. A 55,000 citizen smartphone monitoring system, described as a “digital fence,” tracked potential carriers of COVID-19. In one case, police were dispatched to the home of a man whose phone battery died for fifteen minutes. Anyone caught breaking their phone-enforced curfew risked paying a $33,000 fine.
“We were very proactive, very sensitive to the sources of the infection,” Liang-Gee Chen, Taiwan’s minister of science and technology, said during a forum by the Taipei branch of incubator Techstars. It is one of many startup-focused Taiwanese groups that have flourished in recent years, as the country shifts from huge, legacy outfits like Foxconn, Acer and Asus to smaller, nimble innovators. Last October Taiwan’s startups raised $65m—mostly at early-stage—compared with $49m in 2018.
The so-called “Asian Tiger” nation’s manufacturing heritage allowed it to establish over 60 lines of production for protective face masks – essential in the fight against contagion. Today some believe Taiwan has the capacity to make as many as 10m masks each day.
So large is Taiwan’s surplus, that it has become a key exporter of masks to Europe and the United States, whose responses to the pandemic have been far slower, resulting in a catastrophic loss of life and economic stability. Recent figures showed that Taiwanese industrial production was up 10.41% in the last quarter. That is partly due to a slump across the Taiwan Strait in China, the manufacturing sector of whose National Bureau of Statistics announced was back on track only this March.
Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, is an epidemiologist who was minister for health during the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. Public messaging then was strong enough that this year, Taiwan’s citizens are well-versed in the discipline necessary to keep their country safe.
“Early on, after SARS, they recognized that you need an informed citizenry in a democracy,” Dr Jason Wang, of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention at Stanford University, told Democracy Now! “Government needs to have policies, but the citizens need to comply and help out the government. So it’s a joint effort.”
But while international media coos over Taiwan’s response to the virus, domestically the country’s tech industry is just getting started. In February Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp hooked up with the US National Institutes of Health to develop a COVID-19 vaccine – one of over 70 efforts worldwide.
Earlier this month Taiwan’s technology and science ministry launched a disease prevention startup program, aimed at creating solutions to the public health crisis. Inventions included novel disinfectant spray, contagion-preventing air conditioning and rapid-fire testing thermometers.
Programs like these point to a startup scene that, while in the shadows of neighbors like China, Hong Kong and Singapore, is on the rise. A global economic slowdown could hinder its electronics manufacturing sector – a bedrock of the country’s economy. But in its Coronavirus response, Taiwan has shown how strong public policy, robust industry and innovation can join hands to save lives.