Updated: Sep 8, 2020
After eight hellish months living in the US through the worst Covid outbreak in the world, traveling to Taiwan, a country with one of the lowest number of cases because of exemplary pandemic response, has been an eye-opening experience. Both countries recorded their first cases in late January, within days of each other, but have had entirely different trajectories since then. As of today, the US has recorded over 6.3 million cases and 189,000 deaths. Taiwan has recorded 494 cases and 7 deaths. I’m just over halfway through my quarantine in New Taipei City and can’t help appreciating, on the daily, Taiwan’s outstanding efforts to keep coronavirus contained here.
I was actually in Taiwan for the January 2020 presidential election, just before the novel coronavirus became a pandemic. Taiwan reelected their incumbent Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文, a fiercely intelligent woman leader who is Taiwanese of partial Indigenous descent. Tsai Ing-wen is only the island’s fourth democratically elected president (the country was under martial law until 1987 and didn’t hold their first presidential election until 1996). Yet, she won by a historic landslide. It was emotional seeing a woman leader get voted in so wholeheartedly. Especially compared to America which has had 45 presidents over 222 years, none of whom have been women and only one of whom has been a person of color.
I returned to the US full of feelings and reflections about gender and political leadership. Little did I know how significant they would be. A recent analysis by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum shows that over the last eight months women-led countries have had dramatically better coronavirus outcomes than their male-led counterparts. Women leaders have been proactive and willing to take risks; reacting quickly and decisively, locking down earlier, and coordinating their policy responses. As a result, women-led countries have suffered, on average, half as many deaths as countries led by men and far fewer Covid cases overall.
It's not news to anyone at this point that the US is a disaster when it comes to coronavirus. There are a lot of problems with America's pandemic response but one of the worst, in my experience, is that there’s a lot of confusion about COVID-19 because of poor (predominantly male) leadership and inconsistent messaging. I remember all too well feeling mired in constant uncertainty, doubt, and fear; the unrelenting stress of the day to day; not knowing what was okay to do, or not do, or if I could trust others to be safe. Traveling to a woman-led country which has contained the virus has been a revelation and I want to share a little about my travels to answer the question that once haunted me: What does a pandemic response looks like when it’s working?
At EVA Air check-in in Seattle, we had to show proof of a negative Covid test and my son’s special entry permit before we could even go to our gate (US passport holders are currently restricted from entering Taiwan unless they have special exemptions like, in my son’s case, being the child of a Taiwanese citizen). Before boarding, the airline checked all passengers’ temperatures and marked our boarding passes. On the plane, passengers were spaced 1 to 3+ seats apart and required to wear masks for the duration of the flight. Upon landing, we were shown an educational video about Covid and told to stay seated. Those whose final destination was Taipei, were asked to exit first. Those with connecting flights exited second.
Signing virtual health declaration and quarantine agreement.
In Taoyuan airport, we were immediately directed to a quarantine screening to sign a virtual health declaration and quarantine agreement. A 14-day quarantine is mandated by law for international travelers to Taiwan and the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) tracks your compliance via text and phone calls. To that end, a Taiwan phone number is required to enter the country. If you don’t have one, you have to sign up for service in the airport. The health department tests your phone number on the spot with a text. If all is well and you receive the message, you can continue to immigration.
Quarantine taxi line at Taoyuan airport.
Following immigration and customs, travelers must go directly to their quarantine sites. You can stay at a residence, if you have access to one, or a government-sponsored quarantine hotel. Transportation must be on a special quarantine bus or quarantine taxi, all of which are sanitized frequently. Waiting in the taxi line, we had to fill out a form to record our transport. Luggage and passengers were sprayed down with a rubbing alcohol mixture before entering vehicles. The government then subsidizes taxi fares, so no one pays more than NT$1000 (US$34). Passengers cannot make additional stops or drivers will report them to the CECC. If passengers need to use the restroom, drivers have to call in for a bathroom escort.
Our luggage being sanitized with a rubbing alcohol mixture.
My son also being sanitized before entering our taxi.
Taiwan quarantine is strict and thorough. I can’t leave where I’m staying for the entire two weeks, not even for a breath of fresh air. Fángyì bāo 防疫包 (epidemic prevention packages) were dropped off early on, and the health department coordinates garbage pickup if we need it. I get daily texts from the CECC and phone calls from the local health department asking if I feel okay. If I don’t answer, local police will show up at the door. Breaking quarantine incurs a fine of NT$1,000,000 (US$33,063). One day, I didn’t see the CECC text until an hour after it was sent. Within that hour, the CECC texted four more times and called me twice. I kept my phone close by after that.
Fángyì bāo 防疫包 (epidemic prevention packages). Packages vary by district, depending on funding. Ours had 14 surgical masks per person, instructions how to correctly use the masks and wash hands, garbage disposal bags for pickup, detailed quarantine guidelines, a letter from the mayor thanking us for our compliance, and QR Codes for support apps including one to help exercise and monitor our health during quarantine.
I’m still in quarantine for five more days but it’s already a huge relief to be in an ancestral home where my son and I feel protected during the pandemic. It's also heartbreaking to be far from our other home (albeit temporarily) where so many of our beloved family and friends are still navigating the world’s worst outbreak, feeling inadequately protected or not protected at all. It's hard to know how to close a post like this other than to say I am grateful to be in Taiwan, but I think of my Seattle/US community all the time. When I was in America, reading that containment was possible always made me feel better. I really hope what I’ve shared here can now offer something of the same to others.
Header image: My father being sanitized in the quarantine taxi line at Taoyuan airport.