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Homeland Security

Public confidence a key factor in COVID-19 battle: CECC chief

ROC Central News Agency

04/29/2020 05:42 PM

Taipei, April 29 (CNA) The Central Epidemic Command Center's (CECC) strategy to combat the COVID-19 pandemic on psychological as well as physiological grounds has paid dividends, CECC chief Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said 100 days after the CECC was first convened.

The center was activated on Jan. 20, a day before Taiwan confirmed its first case of COVID-19. Since then, the country has recorded 429 cases and six deaths from the disease, low numbers given the 3.1 million cases and 217,000 COVID-19 deaths reported worldwide.

Responsible for coordinating the response effort by various government ministries, the CECC has been praised by the Journal of the American Medical Association for its effective allocation of resources and the morale-boosting effect of its daily briefings to the public.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday with CNA, Chen, who has become a familiar presence as host of the briefings, said the daily communications have had a psychological importance that should not be overlooked.

During those briefings, he has issued frequent reminders to act with compassion, and to not blame people for contracting the virus or having to be quarantined, hoping to create "a soft space" in the public dialogue capable of counteracting people's fears, he said.

Despite a recent cluster infection aboard the Panshi naval ship which has resulted in 31 new COVID-19 cases, Chen said he believed the virus is largely under control in Taiwan.

His greatest anxiety at this point, he said, is a sudden outbreak that would cause a rapid dissolution of the unity that the country has so far maintained.

"In that case, political rhetoric would drown out expert advice," he said, resulting in potential gaps in the country's epidemic response.

Following three consecutive days in which Taiwan did not record any new COVID-19 cases, Chen was able to reflect on the CECC's performance to date, discussing the challenges he and his colleagues have faced in their response to the crisis.

Staying ahead of events

Since it first convened, the CECC has had to move quickly to stay ahead of events. It has tightened border controls, requisitioned medical supplies and repatriated Taiwan nationals stranded abroad.

It has also carried out virus testing and contact tracing, issued social distancing guidelines, and communicated virus-related information to the public through its daily briefings.

Describing his own role in all this, Chen joked that his main job is "listening to experts talk" and translating their advice into language easily comprehensible by the public.

The harder part, said Chen, is ensuring that the CECC's response keeps up with the rapid pace of developments in this global pandemic.

For example, when the virus began spreading to Europe in early March, nobody expected the level of exponential growth in cases that occurred, he said.

"As we responded to these events, we sometimes only had an hour to decide on a policy and instruct other branches of the government to begin enforcing it," Chen said.

"Thinking back on it, we made the right decisions," he said, while qualifying that the CECC's success could only be measured in relative, rather than absolute terms.

The Feb. 3 evacuation of 247 Taiwanese from the virus' initial epicenter in Wuhan, China, typified this kind of decision-making on the fly, said CECC deputy chief Chen Tsung-yen (陳宗彥).

In that case, Taiwanese authorities only received a copy of the China Eastern charter's passenger list moments before the plane took off from Wuhan, and the list was riddled with errors and omissions.

The CECC had to ensure the repatriations did not lead to a domestic outbreak while also balancing the humanitarian desire to not turn any of the passengers away, he said.

One of the evacuated Taiwanese later tested positive for the virus.

In personal terms, Chen Shih-chung admitted it had been strange to suddenly wind up in the spotlight after decades spent in relative obscurity.

Given the importance of the CECC's task, however, he compared the feeling to "walking on thin ice." In the end, he said, "only our epidemic prevention results will count for anything."

(By Chen Wei-ting and Matthew Mazzetta)

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