Through Taiwan’s Eyes

For me and the world, a weekend away seems like a distant memory. Living in Taiwan where the cases are currently at 4 active cases, I feel lucky that I didn’t have to experience quarantine, widespread panic, and a house full of food and supplies “just in case.” Needless to say, Taiwan has done extremely well managing this crisis, even with how close Taiwan is to China – both in proximity and international relations. The experiences of those living in Taiwan are unique to the world’s.

This specifically isn’t to share political and international comments on how I think this pandemic should be handled, just sharing about my personal experiences in Taiwan.

For me, I think I first heard about COVID-19, then coronavirus, sometime in late January. I heard about a case, the first one in the US, in Washington and told a friend as I was walking around the Taipei 101 skyscraper. I really thought nothing of it and it was a passing thought.

One week later, January 30th, the English school I worked at sent out an email stating that there has been 8 cases in Taiwan (all from travel in Wuhan China). And that we had preventative measures set in place to slow the spread. We were (and still are) required to wash our hands in the since before entering, temperature checked at the door, sprayed with alcohol, and wear a surgical mask at all times. I was kind of taken back because there had been only 8 cases, that is certainly not a big number but why was it such a big issue?

Teaching students while wearing masks as early as February

I learned later that week, SARS, a similar coronavirus, hit Taiwan hard and there was a specific governing body, part of Taiwan’s CDC, that would take action immediately when news breaks about a potential threat. This was crucial to Taiwan’s success. And this is where things started to change.

Most know that in Asian countries, we like to wear masks. But within that week, all surgical masks where confiscated by the government (I used to buy them at 7/11) and only allowed to be sold at authorized locations.(i.e. Pharmacies and Health Centers). I had a few that I could use but I needed to get more. The lines were ridiculous, waiting around 20 minutes before the pharmacy opened waiting around an hour to get just 2 masks.

The limit at that time was 2 masks a week per person, even foreigners. Other masks were distributed to places that needed them like hospitals, schools, and public servants like bus drivers. They slowly increased the number of masks you can buy, which is now 9 every 2 weeks. This was so important to know because Taiwan was ahead of the curve giving priority to the people who needed them most. I was also think it’s important to recognize that foreigners were also allowed to buy them too showing that Taiwan cares about people, not just citizens. They also sent a ton of masks to the US, think millions, and the rest of the world.

Now, in early February, travel bans were restricted to Wuhan and other places of high infection in China. A 14-day quarantine was imposed for all those that travel to China, Hong Kong, and Macau. And more countries were added as time progressed. I was lucky to have been able to go to Korea for 10 days in the end of January, just before the really infection hit. I remember coming back and my mom pleading me to come home, and I almost bought a ticket. I told her that if it gets worse in a month, I would go home, still not really believing it was a big deal yet.

Temperature checks in the subway

Schools were on their Lunar New Year break (like our Christmas break) and it was delayed from opening for two weeks. Then, other teachers from my company started leaving. I started to get nervous and understanding the gravity of the situation. More and more people wore masks everywhere they went. The underground subway and all public transit required masks to ride, social distancing was imposed, gatherings over 100 people were banned. Borders started closing down, Korea, Singapore, Italy, Japan, and then in March 19, Taiwan officially closed its borders to all foreigners. Now it was real.

I was receiving weekly updates from the school and daily updates from friends about the current COVID count in Taiwan slowly getting higher, around 300. America at this point started their outbreak, and already surpassed Taiwan just in Washington alone, at roughly 1,000. I was calling my family now more often, weekly, then every other day. I was worried. My mom told me now, it was good choice not to come home. But to be away from family in this hard time was simply awful. My grandma who is now in a retirement home, or as she calls it “foster home,” has been effectively trapped in her room for over 4 months, seeing only some other nurses and that’s it. It’s heartbreaking.

Back to normal with hikes and the outdoors

This was my life until June when things started to relax. Its been over 2 months since there’s been a local person-to-person transmission. Large social gatherings are allowed again and things have returned to previrus. But a few things have changed, the tourism industry here is non-existent, businesses have closed, and masks are still required in schools and in public transit.

All in all, I am lucky to have lived in Taiwan during this time. I know that I am safe and I hope that everyone stays safe. Wherever you are, be careful and wear a mask.

See you soon,