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Taiwan's Success in Combating the Coronavirus Gains International Attention

A commentary by Dan Southerland 2020-07-06 -- With the coronavirus spreading through the world, Taiwan's success in containing it early on has gained international attention.

The Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting company which has developed a methodology to assess international responses to the virus, ranked democratic Taiwan's response as "among the world's best."

Eurasia Group's president, Ian Bremmer, said that "now is the time to reflect on which countries handled the initial outbreak response better than others–both as an example for other countries to follow and to gauge which countries are best positioned for what comes next."

The New York-based group's methodology was based on performances in three areas: health care management, political response, and financial policy.

In a two-page spread published at the end of June, Time Magazine, where Ian Bremmer is an editor-at-large, summed up the group's findings on 10 "standouts" and how they performed.

When it came to Taiwan, the Eurasia Group said that "rather than shuttering its economy for weeks on end in an attempt to slow the virus, the self-governing island went another way–after quickly closing its borders and banning exports of surgical masks."

Then Taiwan used contact tracing and mobile phone, or SIM, tracking "to ensure those in quarantine were actually abiding by the rules" set for its 23.5 million people as well as for visitors from overseas.

Medical officials held daily briefings for the public, and businesses were kept open "with aggressive precautionary methods," such as "taking temperatures and providing sanitizers before patrons could enter."

The Eurasia Group's nine standouts in dealing with COVID-19 alongside Taiwan were Canada, Argentina, Iceland, Australia, Greece, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates

But Taiwan's coronavirus death toll, which as of June 25 stood at seven, was much lower than the others.

The Taiwan government reported a total of 447 coronavirus cases, with 435 of those people reported to have completely recovered so far.

That left 12 persons who had not fully recovered and were still experiencing some symptoms.

Taiwan's success is considered by some to be all the more remarkable given its location relatively close to China.

Meanwhile, the Washington-D.C.-based and congressionally funded U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) published an issue brief on Taiwan's performance in containing the coronavirus.

USCC Policy Analyst Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic commented on the consequences of China using its influence with the World Health Organization (WHO) to exclude Taiwan from participating in WHO deliberations during the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And RFA reported extensively on the WHO's behavior in a story published on June 17.

According to the USCC issue brief, "Taiwan appears to have successfully contained COVID-19 by instituting early and aggressive measures informed by experience battling the 2003 outbreak of SARS."

SARS was a respiratory illness that, like the coronavirus, also originated in mainland China.

Aside from Taiwan, other nations in the Asia-Pacific region that deserve more international recognition for their performance in containing the coronavirus include New Zealand and Singapore.

As of June 25, New Zealand had suffered the loss of 22 dead. And as of the same date, 26 persons had died in Singapore.

One could argue that Taiwan's success in dealing with the coronavirus was made easier by the relatively small size of its population of 23.5 million people. But Taiwan's capital city of Taipei, with a population estimated at 2.7 million, encompasses some neighborhoods that are densely populated and thus potentially susceptible to the virus.

Thailand's Surprising Success

To the southwest of Taiwan in Southeast Asia, Thailand, on January 13, was the first place outside China to report a case of the coronavirus.

As a Thai photographer in Bangkok told the National Geographic, she thought at the time that "Thailand was done for."

Thailand, a nation of nearly 70 million people, didn't have the money for mass screening.

The public health minister was inexperienced, so he turned the country's efforts over to experts.

Most remarkable, it was ordinary citizens who rallied to halt a major outbreak.

"The public is strict about mask wearing," Arunrugstichai told Nat Geo. "If I forget what's out there, the 'aunties' on the streets glare at me intensely, making me run back home in shame to grab a mask."

Now, with restrictions easing, masked crowds are filling Bangkok's Chatuchak Market, one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Its more 15,000 stalls are jammed with visitors on weekends, so masks are considered a must.

On May 26, Shawn W. Crispin, correspondent for the Asia Times, reported from Bangkok that Thailand had contained the coronavirus outbreak better than most due to uniquely Thai features.

But he also warned of the risks of a possible second wave.

As Crispin explained, when a Chinese tourist was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Jan. 13, "Thailand would have seemed a likely locale for mass contagion."

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists had visited Thailand over the Lunar New Year holiday that began in late January, a time when the virus and its contagiousness were barely understood.

According to Crispin, Thailand prioritized tourism over health.

But when a respected physician projected on March 26 that Thailand could have 350,000 cases and 7,000 deaths, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha invoked emergency rule and imposed lockdown measures.

Daily infections trended down in Thailand to a total of 3,045 cases and 57 deaths as of May 26.

Crispin lists a mix of three factors that helped to constrain the virus:

1) Authorities appealed to Thai nationalism. Stay-at-home and social distancing were deemed patriotic duties.

2) Thai culture: Thais traditionally greet each other without touching and through prayer-like, palm-pressed wais. A Buddhism-inspired reticence also likely helped to keep people apart and mostly free from viral contagion.

3) Universal public health care made low-cost medical treatment widely available.

In addition to this, while Prayut took power as the head of a military junta in 2014, a relatively free press and even freer social media have made it hard for him and his colleagues in the leadership to impose total censorship. So it would be difficult in Thailand to censor any bad news that emerges concerning the coronavirus.

Surveillance state

In contrast, to the east of Thailand, Vietnam is ruled by a communist party that controls most of the news, although some big stories do get out thanks to social media.

On the surface at least, it would appear that Vietnam has done a good job of containing the coronavirus. Powerful bureaucrats have been able to move quickly and early on, impose lockdowns, halt international flights, and close the border with China.

Axios, a U.S.-based news website, reported that the government quarantined a COVID-19-affected region near Hanoi in mid-February and quickly scaled up contact-tracing, knowing that it lacked the resources to conduct mass testing.

According to the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, all entering Vietnam must upon arrival undergo medical checks and a 14-day quarantine.

But an official Vietnamese online newspaper reported on June 10 that the government is now discussing gradual steps to resume international flights.

Given the controls it imposed, it may not be surprising that the government has reported only 349 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within its borders.

But Vietnam also reported an astonishing zero deaths, which has provoked skepticism among experts.

They question how this could be the case in a nation of more than 97 million people which borders China.

The author Bill Hayton and Tro Ly Ngheo summed the situation up in Foreign Policy Magazine.

Tro Ly Ngeo is a pseudonym for a Vietnamese author.

"Vietnam is a surveillance state," the two wrote, "where citizens are monitored online and by 'standing armies' of neighborhood wardens and public security officers who keep constant watch over city blocks."

Hundreds of people are reported to have been fined in Vietnam for causing "unnecessary panic" over the coronavirus or for "undermining the national cause" through social media posts.

In conclusion, for those countries not willing to follow Vietnam's dictatorial route, it might be better to study how Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, or New Zealand contained the coronavirus.

Dan Southerland is RFA's founding executive editor.

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