Coronavirus in Taiwan, Part 1

For the past two months, our lives have been turned kind of upside down just like the lives of everyone else living in Asia. The novel coronavirus, also now known as COVID-19, exploded onto the scene at the same time as Lunar New Year. In this time, it has gone from a mild concern to a full-fledged wildfire, rampaging through our lives, to a less urgent but still vital issue, as we watch the same waves that passed through East Asia begin to reverberate through the US. We’ve realized now that this is shaping up to be one of the biggest incidents in our lifetime, and seeing what is happening to our friends and family in the US makes us want to help and speak up somehow. I think one of the only places to start is by chronicling how we’ve seen it so far.

Part 1:

Though it seems like a bit of an exaggeration, our story really starts more than 15 years ago. While I was still in high school, the SARS outbreak in East Asia of 2002-2003 left an enduring mark on Taiwan. Thousands in Asia were sickened, and Taiwan had more than 70 deaths. Friends who were in Taiwan at that time had school canceled early, and went without their graduation ceremony in May. Old-timers at our school talked about the quarantine procedure that happened because some parents had gotten it, and one of them died. They shut down the school, and made sure that everyone stayed at home for two weeks, checking on them daily with visits in hazmat suits, handing them lunchboxes to make sure they didn’t have any reasons to go outside. Overall, more than 150,000 people were placed on a strict quarantine by the government. After SARS, the Taiwanese developed a habit of wearing face masks quite often if anyone exhibits symptoms of a respiratory illness. More importantly, the government made several changes, including instituting the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which is an agency that would be activated in times of crisis, and headed up by the Minister of Public Health. It would have emergency powers and be the central decision maker about closing schools, businesses, and instituting emergency measures.

Fast forward to 2020. In mid-January, we started hearing about a mysterious disease in Wuhan, China. It barely registered with me when I heard that my dad was leaving Shanghai a few days early for New Year’s break, but it ended up being a huge boon that he got out of China on January 17. On January 21, Taiwan CDC reported their first case of the coronavirus, a Taiwanese businesswoman who had just traveled back from Wuhan, and on January 22, the CECC was activated and already hard at work making sure that face masks would be available, even though the week-long New Year’s vacation had just started. By the time New Year’s break started here on January 25, the result was that Taiwan was already on high alert. I reassured my parents that we would be fine, but on January 26, when we went to Shilin Night Market for a walk, Steve and I were both taken back that we were the only ones in sight on the MRT or in the night market not wearing a face mask. In any given day in Taiwan, a handful of people on the train or bus are always wearing a face mask. It’s a polite thing to do if you have a cold or are suffering from allergy symptoms, because people will look at you askance if you sneeze, cough, or show a runny nose. The idea is: why aren’t you protecting other people by putting some cautionary measures in place if you want to be sick or look sick and still be in public transport? That week, we started playing a game, which was to see how many people we could count who were not wearing face masks on public transit. It usually ended up being 5 to 7 people, two of which were ourselves.

While I’m generally a little more burned out on the news cycle and staying away from the phones, Steve started voraciously reading everything he could about the newest cases, and decided it was time for us to start getting some preventative measures. First, we started walking around trying to figure out where we could buy face masks, hand sanitizer, or rubbing alcohol. Though this was only late January, we were already pretty late on the ball. Most places were sold out or only getting very occasional shipments. One afternoon, we saw a line outside Cosmed, a CVS-type of store, and I jumped in line without being able to figure out what was exactly being sold. Fortunately, it was face masks, and I got a pack of 5 purple masks, because we were only able to buy one pack per person. However, alcoholic wipes, hand sanitizer, and rubbing alcohol were nowhere to be found, even though we walked everywhere. On January 27, we received emails from school saying the New Year break would be extended for three days, and we would go back to school on February 6, not February 3. Many families had probably taken the break time to travel to China, Hong Kong, and other places where the coronavirus seemed to be more prevalent, and this would give us a little bit of breathing room to make sure that if people showed symptoms, they would not come to school.

By the time it was Steve’s birthday on January 30, we had gotten a hold of some masks, both cloth ones that are usually worn for people who are on scooters, and paper ones. The next day on January 31, we were scheduled to go to hot pot downtown with our friends Matt, Donna, Donna’s sister who was visiting from the US, and Jeff. That morning, I made a trip downtown while wearing my cloth mask to buy some yarn from one of the only stores that sells it. While heading downtown for the hot pot, Steve mentally wondered if this was the wrong move. Even in good times, he’s convinced that hot pot is just a terrible disease vector, as are most all you can eat buffets where many people are coming by and using the same handles to get condiments and drinks and desserts. So though it was a delicious dinner, Steve had his misgivings, which were entirely proven to be true a few days later.

On January 30, the CECC was starting to institute a 3-mask per person limit to be dispensed through convenience stores and other small marts. We only succeeded in buying some face masks after staking out the local 7-11 and being told that the delivery truck comes around midnight. So at midnight, we walked downstairs and around the corner to get our three per person, which were packaged in these little plastic baggies. That still constitutes half of the face mask supply we have at home!

On February 4, the CECC introduced another measure limiting face masks. Instead of being dispensed through convenience stores, only government-sanctioned pharmacies would have masks, and you could buy two at a time, once per week. They would track people via their National Health Insurance cards; for foreigners who didn’t have NHI, they would be tracked through their passport number. Moreover, each store would only be given 200 face masks per day. At the same time, Taiwan was ramping up mask production. By the end of the New Year’s holiday, there were millions of masks being produced every single day, and the majority of them was going to hospitals and other locales where they were hoping to build up at least a two-week supply if a large wave of patients hit.

The measure seemed to us like a severe overreaction at the time, but in a theme that would repeat time and time again in the next two months, measures that seemed like an overreaction turned out to be made exactly in time and to the correct extent. We were learning that in order to keep it in control, you had to get ahead of the virus.

In Part 2, I write about the extended school closure in February, voluntary self-distancing, and the Diamond Princess.

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