Thursday 13 May 2021 6:00 am

Taiwan Health Minister: We survived Covid with a handful of deaths, let us help build a global healthcare system

Dr. Shih-chung Chen is the Minister of Health and Welfare for the Republic of China (Taiwan)

Emerging infectious diseases pose an unceasing threat to global health, international economies, trade and tourism. As the world has grown close through international aviation and transport, the ability of pandemics to spread rapidly has increased. Covid-19, the novel form of pneumonia which first emerged in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019 has killed more than 2.7 million people worldwide. 

Taiwan’s geographical proximity to China put it at risk of being one of the worst-affected countries. Our experience of fighting the SARS outbreak meant Taiwan was hyper-aware of the threat of a pandemic. It also meant we knew which alarm bells to ring. On December 31, 2019, before most countries had acknowledged the seriousness of the virus in Wuhan, authorities launched an enhanced monitoring system, alongside tireless containment efforts since the first case in our country on January 21, 2020. As of April this year, there had been 1,086 cases and only 11 deaths in Taiwan. 

For the majority of the population, life and work have continued. There were 253 days without any cases of domestic transmission between April and December 2020.

We have a robust nationwide infectious disease healthcare network, led and overseen by experts across six regions. There are more than 100 secondary response hospitals and all twenty-two special municipalities, counties and cities have their own primary response hospitals. Within the network, there is the legal authority to transfer patients with highly contagious diseases to these designated facilities. This was instrumental in protecting our health system and our health workers. 

Most of our non-Covid services continued to operate throughout the pandemic. To date, there have been only two hospital-associated outbreaks of Covid-19 in Taiwan and no health professionals have died after contracting the virus. 

While global economies have shrunk, Taiwan’s GDP growth last year was just over 3 per cent, with an even higher growth rate of almost 5 per cent in the fourth quarter. Our economy has, for the most part, continued to function and thrive. Early on in the pandemic, we swiftly implemented flexible adjustments for quarantine, so vessels and aircraft carriers which allow our fisheries, offshore wind farms, and air transport industries to continue to operate.

The cornerstone of our success, however, was the public’s trust in an cooperation with the government’s response to containing Covid-19. We have worked tirelessly to balance the public’s right to know and personal privacy and freedom. While countries around the world have used the pandemic as a way to reign in control and strip the public of crucial data, openness of information has been at the core of our response. At no point during the pandemic has Taiwan restricted people’s right to free expression, assembly or participation in public life. While this was enabled by the low transmission of coronavirus in our nation, protecting these freedoms was at the core of our aims. 

The impact of the pandemic has been felt the most by those who are already vulnerable, or lacking quality health care services. The pandemic was able to grasp a hold of the world because of our international ties. But it is also through our global community that we can root out the vulnerabilities which allowed the virus to spread. Taiwan will do its utmost to work with the World Health Organization and global health leaders to ensure that all people enjoy living and working conditions which promote a healthy life. We will monitor health inequalities and advocate for universal access to quality health services. 

Taiwan’s response has been one of the world’s success stories, but the pillars which enabled this must be available in countries across the world. There must be global monitoring and early warning systems to detect the threat of future emerging infectious diseases. 

We urge the World Health Organisation and the global community to acknowledge our contributions to the international community and to include Taiwan in international meetings, mechanisms and activities. We will continue to work with the rest of the world to ensure that all enjoy the fundamental human right to health. Echoing the mantra of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, no one should be left behind.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.