My friends and former co-workers, Marc and Sally, love to travel the world and this year spent some of February and March in Taiwan.
This is their account of the response of Taiwan to COVID19, the letter they sent to friends after they arrived back home on March 19, 2020:
As the Deads so eloquently sang, “What a long, strange trip it’s been!”
We are ensconced pond-side, bleary from poor sleep jet-lag wise, but home at last. Our wonderful friend Missy went shopping for us, so eggs and cheese and milk were waiting when we woke from not sleeping. So begins our at-least 14 day self-quarantine — we’ve been through enough bad places in the past 2 days that it would be crazy to do anything else.
A sudden spike of CV in Taiwan ( something like 25 new cases) brought instant response — the borders are largely closed to foreigners now, and the government is busy tracking down the vectors of the newly infected. In Taiwan surgical masks are universally available (but we still had our supply of N95s from Community Builders that we carried in our backpacks for 2 months.) Just before leaving Taipei, we bought a big box of disposable gloves and two large bottles of hand sanitizer, both easily available in shops within a block of our hotel. We wore our masks and gloves throughout the airport experiences and for the first 20 minutes on the planes (allowing the HEPA systems to cleanse the cabin air a few hundred times before removing them). We washed down all the surfaces around us with sanitizer, and washed our phones after handling them with gloves. Wore gloves to the bathroom and disposed of them after each visit.
Our Taiwan to SFO flight was more crowded than it had looked in the seat assignment window online, but we were still relatively isolated, plus everyone was coming from the clean island like us. Also almost everyone wore surgical masks throughout the trip- it’s what they do in Taiwan all the time anyway, and so did all the flight attendants.
All it took was a day back in America to see how hopeless avoiding an outbreak is here, given the money making ethos of every business, the lax response by the government at every level (despite lots of talk) and the general idiocy of the people who live here.
At arrival at SFO we breezed through re-entry, though standing in a lineup of returnees with no distancing whatsoever. The Immigration officer greeted us outside of the glass booth they usually sit in, with his mask dangling under his chin — a 2 foot distance from hundreds of people every hour. No disinfection, no baggage check, no dogs, no customs inspection: we might as well have been carrying 50 pounds of crack and a nuclear device.
Shuttle driver to the hotel handled our bags, and everyone else’s, without gloves (which we wore until we were inside our room.) No sanitizer in the hotel lobby — being California, there was was wine, whiskey and tequila for sale, so we opted for internal alcohol to go with our external dosing. We picked this nice hotel based on the advertised full breakfast included, but since California adopted “no gatherings”, they shut it down and offered us grab-and-go – but figured they’d offset their losses by offering the absolutely smallest yogurt container I’ve ever seen, one granola bar and an apple the size of a fig.
Back at SFO we saw that restaurants were generally takeout only, but you could sit inside if you wanted to drink alcohol – which several people were doing at 11 AM. One guy took his grab-and-go and sat across a table from us and actually put his feet up on the table, dirty boots and all, staring at the weirdos with the masks. NOT ONE FUCKING RESTAURANT OR SHOP HAD A SANITIZING STATION. In Taiwan you could not walk 25 steps without seeing one available free. Every restaurant took your temperature before you entered, every museum and the subway required masks. Two hours waiting for our flight at SFO and we never saw a single person cleaning or wiping down anything. In the Taipei Metro, there was an army of cleaners endlessly wiping down the escalator and stair rails, the strap handles and seats in the cars, etc.
Happily our SFO to Boston flight was totally empty – maybe 15 passengers. Again we wiped everything, did the glove and mask thing and passed the time watching movies. Logan was also stuck on lazy mode — we were un-approached the entire transit from plane to uber. Our uber driver was a young Indian guy from Waltham, who was clearly happy we were wearing masks, and he was armed with soap and water and hand sanitizer. Why are only immigrants sane here?
Now that the internet knows I’m back, my inbox is clogged with special herbal remedies that will prevent corona virus and organic pure sanitizer creams.
This country is fucked.
I asked him if I could share this and sent him this Foreign Policy article on Taiwan’s “success” story with COVID19 (https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/16/taiwan-china-fear-coronavirus-success/). Here is his response:
Thanks, George— excellent article that conformed to our observations. I’d add:
Hand sanitizer pumps are at the entrance to every shop and public place and everyone uses them many times a day.
Public restrooms are absolutely everywhere, always free, and invariably clean.
Seats, grips and handrails on buses, trains and stations are being wiped down constantly. Taipei metro claims to disinfect each carriage every 4 hours. There is an army of cleaners.
Having one’s temperature taken by forehead scan was the rite of entry to nearly every restaurant and many points of entry to businesses and apartment buildings, and grew ever more common over our two month stay.
A ubiquitous network of CCTV cameras everywhere assisted in tracking down the contacts of early victims and isolating vectors of infection.
Mask wearing was already a cultural norm and in crowded subways, malls, markets, busses, and workplaces it neared 100%, even though enforcement only became a factor by March. (Social distancing was virtually non-existent — everything was open for business right through our March 17th departure.)
Handshakes are uncommon — slight bowing and even wai’ing is a more common greeting. Hand holding, embracing and public affection is not unheard of, especially among teens, but is much rarer than in the west. Fist bumping, high-fiving. and cheek kissing greetings are practically unheard of.
Public fear and demonization of PRC Chinese is common – mainlanders are isolated and avoided – the virus was usually referred to in conversation with us westerners as Wuhan Flu or Wuhan Virus.
Westerners were also perceived as a threat in public, especially as the virus spread overseas — people often moved away from us on the subway cars and platforms. There was no hostility in this, however—people were warmly welcoming and friendly. We are easily noticed, as the population is 95% Han Chinese.
A huge sector of the public travels solo on motor scooters, even when in groups, rather than side by side in closed cars.
Every train, bus and metro car is equipped with electronic message scrolls or video screens which carried CV safety advice between announcements of upcoming stops and stations. Cardboard figurines of popular anime characters spread the prevention message on subway platforms and in other lobbies.
People walking side by side or sitting together are more likely to be staring at their phones than facing one another when conversing.
Now back in Massachusetts and armed with hindsight, I can definitely say we should have stayed in Taiwan for another 3 or 4 months.