In Taiwan, I had a chance to see what really matters in a democracy. We need a vigilant society as well as needing to shape our lives from the bottom up. What matters is diversity and not the feeling that we no longer have any influence over anything.
I was in Taiwan in January and February 2020 as the pandemic emerged and swept the world. After many difficult years writing my novel Hours of Lead (2018), which I intended as a warning against the brutality of China’s police state, it was a life-changing experience to spend time in the fascinating ‘sociotope’ of Taiwan, the only country in the world that manages to trade with China while sending a clear signal that it won’t be cowed by a totalitarian state and will continue to build democracy instead.
Since gaining independence in 1945, Taiwan has built one of the most successful democracies in the world. In 1989, it held a free election. In 1996, Lee Teng-hui was elected President. This was the first time in 5,000 years that people in China were able to elect their ruler.
While Taiwan has followed a democratic path, China—like every totalitarian regime—cannot tolerate any independence in its vicinity and claims the island as its province, a part of mainland China. That is why Taiwan remains isolated and, because of Chinese pressure, has not been admitted to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Yet, despite not receiving information on the coronavirus outbreak either from China or WHO, Taiwan is one of the countries that has coped well with the pandemic.
It turned out that the invisible coronavirus is also a social virus, since it has exposed the weaknesses of politicians and the system, we live in.
I had hoped naïvely that other countries would learn from Taiwan’s valuable experience and know-how, that WHO would adapt it to create a global safety network for preventing and managing the disease. The Taiwanese government acted in a fast, business-like manner, relying on experts and issuing clear guidelines. The epidemiologist heading the crisis team was the key person whose advice the government followed. Matter-of-fact information was also provided by Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected for another four-year term in January, as well as the Prime Minister, Su Tseng-chang.
Public television set aside a regular slot for providing relevant information to Taiwanese citizens, which saved them from wasting time on false, contradictory and misleading information. The country has a vigilant society where the people trust their government and the government trusts the people. A high standard of healthcare is one of the government’s priorities. The country has learned from the experience of the SARS epidemic in 2003 and understands that no detail is too small to be underestimated.
The Invisible Coronavirus is also a Social Virus
Life went on as usual, albeit with restrictions. Every citizen was issued with at least three face masks and sanitizers. A unified price for face masks was set at NT$6 (20 cents) throughout the country and the Prime Minister announced that overcharging for face masks would be punished by draconian fines; no profiting from human misfortune.
To prevent the hospitals from being overwhelmed, 24 medical care stations were promptly set up across the country, where a maximum of two people was seen at a time. No transport restrictions whatsoever were imposed. Underground and railway carriages, buses and airplanes were regularly sanitized. No one left home without a face mask and all seats at public gatherings had to be spaced out at a prescribed distance. Restaurants and theatres were not ordered to close and public events were not cancelled. When my friends phoned me urging me to return to Prague as soon as possible, I said they should come to Taiwan instead.
It turned out that the invisible coronavirus is also a social virus since it has exposed the weaknesses of politicians and the system we live in. In January no one knew anything about the virus, there was uncertainty, and totalitarian China suppressed information. The world was shocked by the fate of the Chinese doctor Li Weng-liang, who first reported the incidence of a novel virus back in December, only to be silenced and labelled an “enemy of the state for gravely disrupting the social order”.
He subsequently became infected himself and died from the virus. Any whistleblower who dared to share information on the virus on social media was arrested and disappeared. All video footage from Wuhan that got out into the world at the time disappeared. Not only was a city with a population of eleven million locked down, but so was the entire surrounding region, a total of sixty million people. China immediately got rid of all foreign reporters and foreigners.
Taiwan has traditionally invested heavily in medical research because of the threat of biochemical weapons from China that the country has faced over the past few decades.
Thorough Planning and a Timely Response
The Chinese government was terrified, as Chernobyl had shown that it is impossible to predict the effect of an unexpected disaster on the political system. It may disintegrate or consolidate. The Chinese system has consolidated.
The WHO received information on an outbreak of pneumonia of unknown origin in Wuhan on 31 December 2019. On that same day, Taiwan summoned the first health professionals to the capital Taipei. People arriving on direct flights from Wuhan had their temperature taken and were examined for potential symptoms of respiratory disease. As early as 5 January, tracing began of all those who had visited Wuhan in the previous 14 days and showed symptoms of an infection of the upper respiratory tract.
As at that time no test was available for the novel virus, every suspect case was tested for a total of 26 viruses, including SARS and other respiratory illnesses. People with symptoms were quarantined and healthcare workers went to see them at their homes to assess whether hospital treatment was necessary.
The authorities know that citizens cannot be reduced to being labelled ‘virus spreaders’ and deprived of their human dignity, and that curtailing freedoms and paralyzing institutions would only bring about more uncertainty.
On 27 January, the decision was taken to compare data from the National Health Insurance system with data from immigration authorities, the register of Taiwan’s citizens and the register of foreigners. This enabled the authorities to identify practically everyone who had visited the exposed area over the previous 14 days. It took the National Health Command Center (NHCC) just one day to set up this system. Thanks to thorough planning and timely response, the situation remained under control. On 15 January, two weeks before the WHO declared the outbreak a global emergency, the NHCC suspended the export of face masks and respirators until the country’s stockpiles were replenished. The NHCC was turned into a coordination center to which the newly established Central Epidemic Command Center (CEEC) reported.
A Professional Level of Communication with the Public
The ministries responsible for running the country’s economy immediately released funds to stimulate the more vulnerable industries and minimize economic losses in Taiwan. The self-employed and local small businesses, invaluable in this kind of situation, could claim relief without unnecessary red tape. No one—neither the population at large nor the experts—considered the measures that were adopted alarming or disproportionate, not even in the early days, when face masks were recommended before hardly any cases were reported. The highly professional level of communication was also fascinating to observe. It remained a matter of fact and calm at all times. Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung openly admitted that despite their successes, it was inevitable in the medium term that the contagion would spread among groups of the population.
In early February, the government ramped up spending on research for a vaccine. Taiwan has traditionally invested heavily in medical research because of the threat of biochemical weapons from China that the country has faced over the past few decades. Teams of researchers immediately started work on developing a test for the disease we now know as COVID-19. They were aiming for a fast test that would deliver results within twenty minutes.
On public transport or in any other crowded places it was rare to see someone without a face mask. In addition, the country has a long-established and highly effective system of public hygiene, including toilets in every metro station, which can be used free of charge and are kept meticulously clean and supplied with sanitizers. Overall, Taiwan is one of the top ten countries with the most effective healthcare system.
The following micro situation sums up Taiwan in a nutshell: as soon as the country had stocked up on face masks, it started sending them as humanitarian aid to China—the very country that denies it the right to existence and whose President threatens to invade them. Sometime earlier, at a time of devastating wildfires, Taiwan donated (!) hundreds of thousands of face masks to Australia and countries affected by volcanic eruptions.
A Solidarity Among all Nations is Required
There was no sign of panic, but neither was there excessive optimism—the whole country just became very vigilant. Cases in Europe and nearly everywhere outside of Asia were brought in by people who arrived by air and who could, in theory, have been checked in advance. Closed borders or machine guns will never stop the virus from spreading. It is not a Chinese virus but a human virus and fighting it requires a common approach and solidarity among all nations.
A Taiwanese team of experts ensured that life continued as normal because panic and stress weaken the human organism and its immune system. The public’s willingness to observe the speedily introduced government guidelines made the job of the authorities easier. Most Taiwanese have been through the SARS epidemic and many still remember that difficult period. The new epidemic fostered kindness, solidarity and unity among people. There was far more talk of mutual and social assistance than of the economy.
Taiwan has tried to avoid a lockdown. In the past, this country has not been spared abuses of power in the name of ‘safety’. The authorities know that citizens cannot be reduced to being labelled ‘virus spreaders’ and deprived of their human dignity, and that curtailing freedoms and paralyzing institutions would only bring about more uncertainty.
Taiwan has learned to be self-sufficient. The country nurtures small, family-run businesses, local farmers and diversity, rather than monopolies and monocultures. We, on the other hand, have been wondering how to survive. As a developed industrialized nation, we have got used to finding every kind of products from around the world on our supermarket shelves, no matter the season. Just a few weeks ago the idea that this might come to an end seemed absurd. But the coronavirus has turned many seemingly nonsensical scenarios into reality.
Parallels between Taiwan and the Czech Republic
Buddhist temples are one of the reasons why providing help and sharing experience with others is easier in Taiwan. On a day-to-day basis, the temples serve as community centers (unlike China, the country enjoys the freedom of expression and religion). At the same time, the Taiwanese are weary of countries that exploit the situation and tie aid to political conditions, expansionism and propaganda. China or Russia never do anything out of the kindness of their hearts and never behave unselfishly—authoritarian states that they are, they fill with their propaganda the void that has, sadly, been left by the EU. They are keen to increase their political influence and exploit the crisis to weaken Europe, and not only Europe.
I will never forget January in Taiwan. It has taught me what really matters in a democracy. We too have to shape our lives from the bottom up. What matters is diversity, not the feeling that we no longer have any influence. The powers-that-be want to control us and spread fear to make us all think the same way, act the same way. They cannot handle otherness and diversity. But in a democracy that is based on shared values, that has a vision and a goal, society stands upright. Those who lie are called liars, those who steal are called thieves: there is no room for discussion.
The new generation of people growing up in Taiwan understands what it means to be democratic. These young people go into politics. We in Eastern Europe feel as if 1989 never happened. And on top of that, we have hyper-consumption, an overemphasis on productivity and economic pragmatism that increases the sense of uncertainty among people and exacerbates their frustration. We ought to preserve the plurality of grassroots activism as a political tool for protecting life from totalitarian demands. This is vital for our future.
In a democracy that is based on shared values, that has a vision and a goal, society stands upright. Those who lie are called liars, those who steal are called thieves: there is no room for discussion.
I see parallels between Taiwan and the Czech Republic. In 1987, Taiwan lifted martial law and started building a democracy. After 1989, unlike Taiwan, we failed. And I wonder why that is. I spent some time on an island that lives under constant threat of a military invasion from the current Chinese leadership. Only when I was there did I fully appreciate how alone they are. China aspires to be a global power: it is buying up the world and succeeding in Latin America and Africa. Although they have not been quite as successful in Europe, they have found a country at its very heart, a country called the Czech Republic, with a president and a government that can be bought.
It is not surprising when totalitarian and corrupt regimes do as they are told; China is the one that dictates conditions. But the Czech variety of capitalism has followed the example of China as well, reinstating the law of the jungle: the stronger one controls the one who is weaker. The law of democracy, however, demands that the one who is stronger protect the weakest.
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