Taiwan’s response to COVID-19: Yes, we’re still playing ball


Manju Chen - APIGA 2018 Fellow, ICANN67 Fellow, and APrIGF2020

For all the baseball fans desperate for some ‘real live games’ and can’t get them due to the pandemic, here’s a friendly suggestion: watch CPBL, the Taiwanese professional baseball league.

Taiwan’s response to COVID-19: Yes, we’re still playing ball

Yes, you read that right. The Taiwanese professional baseball league, which started its 2020 season on 11th April, is one of the very few professional sports leagues still in play in the world. Moreover, the league will be welcoming 1,000 fans in the stadium for this Friday’s game. (You can find live streaming of the games on Twitter with English commentary. Gratis.)

Balls are still flying in Taiwanese stadiums because the country, my country, has been doing a good job keeping the coronavirus under control. As of today (6th May), Taiwan has 439 confirmed cases, including 6 death and 339 recoveries. Less than 15% of the cases were domestic.

Taiwan has been the poster child for coronavirus control since the outbreak. From the country’s smart, professional and innovative leadership to our rapid response and well-defined strategies, media coverage about Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been nothing but praises.  

So, what do I have to add to the numerous news stories and opinion pieces? How about the hottest item in the world right now?

Let’s talk about masks

Yes. Masks. That thing you wear to not only protect yourself and others from the virus but also make your look more attractive. (Allegedly.) Who needs plastic surgeries when surgical masks can do the magic? If only we knew.

Despite being dismissed as ‘useless’ in the early stage by many, nowadays both public health authorities and the general public are pretty much on the same page of wearing masks as a coronavirus protective measure. 

But this raises another problem in a lot of countries, where there are simply not enough masks for everyone. 

Taiwan doesn’t have the same problem because the government took early action to restrict mask exportation. The system for distributing rationed masks for all citizens was in place shortly after.

Tired of standing in line? Check the real-time mask map!

The “name-based rationing” system was implemented on 6th February. Even before that, a “Mask Map” was created to let everyone know the pharmacy locations and mask supplies, all based on reported data by the public. This was immediately hugely popular. Within a few days, Howard Wu, the engineer who originally developed the platform using Google GPS and Place API, faced a 20,000 USD bill from Google for using the API. Thankfully, Google waived the cost in an effort to jointly combat the virus. 

Around the same time, Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang approached Wu and offered to collaborate. Using the National Health Insurance (NHI) data released by Tang, volunteer engineers in Taiwan were able to develop multiple platforms and chatbots to provide accurate and real-time information about pharmacy locations and mask stock. 

Just like how our president, Tsai Ing-wen, always attributes the country’s success to ‘Team Taiwan’(referring to both the administration and the general public), Tang never took the credit alone. This minister without portfolio always emphasizes the critical role of g0v, the Taiwanese civic hacker/digital activist community (herself a part of), in maintaining and advancing both the mask map platforms and the rationing system.

Currently, Taiwan is at the 3.0 version of the mask rationing system, where people can register for their portion (9 masks per person bi-weekly) using kiosks in the convenience stores and collect them later. It took Tang and g0v roughly 2 months to evolve from 1.0 (line up at pharmacies), 2.0 (order online, pay by credit cards or at convenience stores, and collect later), to the current 3.0. Needless to say, all collecting methods are still available. 

Breaking Gender Stereotype on top of fighting the virus

Children younger than 16 can choose to collect 9 adult masks or 10 children masks every 14 days. During one of the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) daily briefings, a reporter spoke about how boys were reluctant to wear pink masks to school in fear of being teased by their peers. 

The day after, all health officials wore pink masks at the press conference. In an effort to show that ‘there is no gender in color’, Chen Shih-chung, the minister of Health and Welfare and the commander of CECC, also revealed Pink Panther as his favorite childhood cartoon character.

Joining to support CECC’s message, on the same day almost all government agencies changed their online presence to pink and many businesses did the same, effectively making pink ‘the new black’ in Taiwan.

Oh, did I mention CECC?

Until today, Taiwan’s CECC has given more than 100 daily press conferences since its first one on 26 January. Opening YouTube at 2pm every day to watch the CECC daily brief live has become a Taiwanese national routine.

Speaking of YouTube, are you addicted to cat videos? I personally am a dog person. That’s why I can’t avoid mentioning our Ministry of Health and Welfare (MHW)’s brilliant social media tactics in distributing public health information and MHW announcements. Yes, they use dog pictures. And yes, the dog is meltingly adorable. 

Do you like dogs?

If you do, I highly recommend tuning into our MHW’s Twitter account. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read Chinese. You can still enjoy the majority of MHW’s tweets because, and I’m not kidding, they post dog pictures. Like A LOT OF them. 

「總柴」(‘Shi-EO’), a pun combining the Mandarin pronunciation of CEO and Shiba, is the name of MHW’s promotion ambassador. He reminds people to wash their hands, stay at home, and practice social distance

Did I mention how cute Shi-EO is? Well, now you know I was not lying. 

The Tsai administration has been jokingly referred to as the ‘meme administration’ by some supporters for its tendency to incorporate popular memes into the online campaigns. But it’s not only about picking up memes and trends. The administration has, by many accounts, successfully uses social media and instant messaging tools to communicate with citizens promptly and openly, gaining people’s trust by being as transparent as possible.

The Line (the most used instant messaging platform in Taiwan) chatbot,「疾管家」(CDC Housekeeper), is one of the best examples. The chatbot sends CDC reminders and updates daily. It also provides in-chat functions such as mask map and public health consultation. The subscription of CDC Housekeeper has reached 2 million by mid-March, meaning every 1 of 3 families in Taiwan is subscribed to the chatbot.

Nobody’s Perfect

But, you may wonder, is there not any criticism of what the government is doing? Of course there is. As a free and democratic society, everybody gets to criticize the government openly about whatever they find problematic. 

One of the hottest topics during this pandemic is whether or not the country needs to invest in contact tracing.  

As of now, no contact tracing app is implemented In Taiwan. Citizens in mandatory quarantine are required to keep their cellphones at hand. Apart from the daily phone calls from the local public health offices, those in quarantine are tracked by the government using the GPS data of their cellphones.

This kind of ‘digital fence’ has raised legitimate concerns about privacy and human rights violation. In a webinar where she shared Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, Tang admitted that the digital fence ‘is of course surveillance and an intrusion of privacy’, but it is limited to the 14 days of quarantine. She also pointed out that the digital fence is backed by a constitutional ruling that dates back to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2013; the jury back then decided that under extreme circumstances, a digital fence with an informed process is nevertheless better than a physical one.

Although 91% of Taiwanese approve of the ‘digital fence’ measure, Tang stressed that ‘this doesn’t mean I’m forgetting about the 9% who don’t approve’. According to Tang, the 9% serves as a constant reminder to the administration to be accountable to its decisions and strives for more openness and transparency in the future. 

Taiwan can help

Our president announced on 1st April (not the best date, I know) that Taiwan will be donating 10 million masks to countries hit hardest by coronavirus. On top of that, starting from 27th April, Taiwanese citizens are also able to donate uncollected masks from their past rations to other countries. (The numbers have reached 4 million until now.)

Taiwan faces many challenges; a small country, with close proximity, and surely ties, to China, with all the difficulties and opportunities that presents, including the geopolitical realities that result in the exclusion of Taiwan from WHO. 

Nevertheless, Taiwan has become a model example of how to contain the coronavirus despite all odds against us. The virus plaguing the world has tested Taiwan and this small patch of democracy and energy, with ingenuity, inventiveness, and cooperation across its society, has found a way to survive. 

Taiwan stands ready to offer knowledge and experience to the global community. The country’s leadership has repetitively expressed; Taiwan can help, Taiwan wants to help, and Taiwan is helping. So it’s “play ball” in Taiwan, and the world is welcome, indeed encouraged, to watch.

Author BIO

Manju Chen

Manju Chen

An internet researcher at NIIEPA who works on various projects ranging from internet governance models to cyber security. An anthropologist in the Internet Governance world. We need more anthros in here!

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