Life is about to undergo significant change as the US and Europe begin societal lockdowns to slow the exponential spreading of Coronavirus.
As a contrast, this is what life is like in Taiwan – first person and anecdotally.
Taiwan Responds Quickly and Decisively
We were skiing in Japan when news of the coronavirus outbreak in China first surfaced, just before Chinese New Year.
As with SARS, China was quick to say it was no big deal and most likely not contagious. I rode the chairlift with a woman from Shanghai who said she was concerned she might not be able to fly home but also that it was nothing to worry about.
By the time we were heading back to Taiwan, the lockdown in Wuhan had already begun. Winnie bought a few face masks at a pharmacy for the flight home.
China disallows the World Health Organization from treating Taiwan as a separate entity – so it is on its own. Thus, Taiwan was quick to act, operating under the assumption that China’s disinformation machine was at work. “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”
All flights from the Wuhan region were quickly screened and then shut down. Passengers from the region were tested and isolated, and their movements in the days prior traced in order to also quarantine those they had come in contact with.
On December 31, Chinese officials notified the World Health Organization that China had several cases of pneumonia. That day, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control began monitoring passengers who arrived in the country from Wuhan. Government officials boarded flights from Wuhan as soon as they landed, monitoring passengers for symptoms.
Less than a week later, the government began monitoring people who had traveled from Wuhan since December 20.
“Suspected cases were screened for 26 viruses, including SARS and MERS,” the Stanford Health Policy report said. “Passengers displaying symptoms were quarantined at home and assessed whether medical attention at a hospital was necessary.” (source)
All public schools were immediately closed for an additional 3 weeks beyond the Chinese New Year holiday.
The export of face masks was banned and prices capped. The government then became the sole legal distributed of masks and other supplies, working with industry to build additional capacity. They are now producing 10 million per day and preparing to restart exports to help the rest of the world meet demand.
The 60 production lines, which normally take from four to six months to complete, were set up in 25 days
During this time we saw fewer people on the streets, and 90%+ of them wearing masks.
Quarantines are strict with severe fines. In some cases, people are isolated at home with a GPS phone/tracker, and the phone is called randomly day and night. If the phone isn’t answered or the GPS location doesn’t match the person’s home bad things happen.
In other cases, people are quarantined at a specially designated hotel or government facility… one guy was penalized 1 million NTD for leaving his room (about $33,000 USD.)
Thanks to the quick and decisive action of the Taiwan government, the extensive shutdowns happening in Europe and the US were not required. Total confirmed cases were limited to ~50 with one death.
Life at Present
Today life is basically the same as it was 3 months ago.
The only real change is that a 14-day automatic quarantine was recently implemented for people arriving from most of the United States due to lack of testing. This means my Mom’s visit to Taiwan had to be reschedule from end of March to end of September. On the plus side, she will be able to spend time with kid #2.
For the past 2 years, Jr’s school has done a simple health check at the door upon arrival – look for throat inflammation with a handheld flashlight, check the temperature, wash hands with a disinfectant spray. The only difference now is this test happens outside the main entrance so no parents enter the school, and the kids wear face masks. As a private school, it didn’t even close for the 3 week public school shutdown.
Restaurants have also implemented a simple health screen – temperatures are checked and hands washed with a disinfectant spray. Restaurants are definitely less busy than normal, but many are encouraging patrons to phone orders in – one of our favorite local places has a temporary 20% discount for takeout.
We do a lot of food delivery – the delivery fee is less than the $0.50/person bus fare to go to a restaurant. Delivery staff is no longer allowed into the building, so instead of walking 5 steps to our door I walk 10 steps to the elevator and 30 steps to the front gate.
Our building has also started putting plastic wrap over the elevator buttons. This is replaced daily.
For a couple weeks, the government was distributing residents’ face mask allocation through the pharmacies (government owned.) This created some long lines for people. Recognizing that this itself was a health risk, masks are now sent to the 7-11 nearest your home – no more lines / reduced human-to-human contact.
I woke up at 6:30 am to join a friend for a 35 km bike ride. Then Jr and I rode bikes to school and I continued on to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for lunch at home.
The grocery store was mostly empty, fairly normal for a weekday morning. Everything was in stock and abundant. I asked one of the staff to clarify the price on the fish and ended up with 4 people helping me (I got the mackerel.)
Once I’m done writing this, one of the bulbs in Jr’s room has burned out. I need to borrow a ladder from the building’s maintenance staff and then bike to the corner store to get a replacement.
This afternoon Jr has roller blading class, and then we will stop by our favorite Japanese restaurant for dinner.
After dinner we will do our normal bedtime routine which includes lots of story time (we recently ordered a 12-pack of Dr. Seuss books that are a hit so far.)
Fairly typical and normal.
The coronavirus itself is a pretty nasty creature – symptoms don’t appear for up to 14-days during which we are completely contagious.
If the virus isn’t contained immediately (e.g. Wuhan entire city quarantine, Taiwan and Korea style testing / quarantine / school shutdowns) then you have to ride the wave of death and economic collapse that follows (e.g. Northern Italy.)
The United States was slow to respond and as such will have some challenging times ahead. A 2-week shut down of all schools and businesses at least allows the spread to slow. If the hospitals are able to support those who have already contracted it, then hopefully the death rates are low. If not, within a few weeks to a few months we will all know multiple people who have died (not heard of, not a friend’s uncle, people we personally know.)
The economic impact will be longer lasting – the average person can’t afford a $400 emergency. Without government intervention the number of hourly workers and small businesses going bankrupt will begin to look like the Great Depression. Airlines, hotels, restaurants, retailers… will all struggle.
Please, do your part. Stay home. Keep away from people if you can’t. Help others where you can, especially the elderly and vulnerable.
Remember: If you are young and healthy, you can carry it home and kill your parents and grandparents. Stay home!
Life is about to undergo significant change. As Americans and Europeans undergo shutdowns of all but essential services.
Once the exponential growth has been curbed, we’ll be able to slowly return to a sense of normalcy as exemplified by our current life in Taiwan.
Remain optimistic and hopeful, but diligent and responsible.
Stay safe. Good luck.