The United States recorded more than 80,000 new novel coronavirus infections and more than 1,000 related deaths on Wednesday amid a nationwide surge in new cases. Taiwan, meanwhile, reached a milestone: 200 days without recording a single locally transmitted coronavirus infection.
The island of more than 23 million people has officially confirmed just 550 cases and seven covid-19 fatalities. Given Taiwan’s density and proximity to China — they are neighbors, and locked in a sovereignty dispute — Taiwan’s successful handling of the pandemic has been closely analyzed by health experts.
Early in the year, as the virus spread in China, scientists anticipated that Taiwan could have the world’s second-worst outbreak given its location and the frequency of daily flights and travelers from China, according to a March article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Instead, the opposite happened, as Taiwan harnessed lessons from past epidemics and took the virus seriously from the start. And while many countries that initially averted large outbreaks in the spring saw cases surge this summer or autumn, Taiwan in has continued to stave off the worst of the pandemic.
As soon as China first reported to the World Health Organization in late December that a mysterious pneumonia-like virus was circulating in Wuhan, Taiwan began screening passengers on flights from the city. Having already experienced the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, which also originated in China, the island had the foresight and infrastructure to mobilize a fast response.
During this high-stakes period, when the virus was gaining quiet footholds from Milan to New York City, Taiwan took few chances. By late January, the government was using records from its national health system to identify people who had recently developed respiratory problems and test them for the coronavirus. Officials used immigration databases to prioritize testing people who had recently traveled to hotspots.
“Taiwan quickly mobilized and instituted specific approaches for case identification, containment, and resource allocation to protect the public health,” the Journal of the American Medical Association article concluded.
The island has also relied heavily on technology and public trust, tracking people once they cross the border to ensure they comply with the 14-day quarantine requirement, and creating an app that allowed residents to check which pharmacies had masks in stock. An article published this month in the Lancet notes that the island “had an established culture of face mask use” that meant many people began wearing masks in public before they were officially required to do so — and that the government was quick to ramp up production and form a plan to distribute masks to all residents.
Many experts have praised Taiwanese officials for acknowledging the dangers posed by the virus from the start — which may have been a crucial factor in stopping its spread.