Taiwan's first female president is delivering a stunning COVID-19 response

Taiwan’s first female president is delivering a stunning COVID-19 response

The infection rate is low. The response has been swift. The country is now donating to help other affected countries, sharing surgical masks globally.
Tsai Ing-Wen

Last week, I surveyed three extraordinary women who were successfully navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective countries. This week, I want to focus on the remarkable achievements of the female president of my own country of birth.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first female president and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party, has shown a stolid, quiet composure throughout this global pandemic, and is largely responsible for the island’s small number of fatalities.

An impressive achievement, considering Taiwan’s geographic proximity to China, and the fact that it has almost 24 million people on an island just under half the size of Tasmania.

Currently, of the 100-plus nations affected, Taiwan has the lowest incidence rate per capita — roughly 1 in every 500,000 people.

In the last 24 hours, President Tsai has announced her country will donate 10 million masks to countries that have been most severely impacted by COVID-19. Taiwan’s roughly $35 billion stimulus package will aid the country’s first large-scale humanitarian assistance initiative since the beginning of the crisis.

Seven million masks will be allocated to countries including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and the U.K. Two million masks will go to the U.S. Currently, under the Taiwan-US epidemic prevention cooperation framework, supplies of up to 100,000 face masks per week have already been making their way across the North Pacific Ocean.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced plans to hold discussions with EU countries to provide resources and aid. It also announced donations of thermal imaging devices such as infrared forehead thermometers to the country’s diplomatic allies, which have dwindled in the last few years, and currently include Nicaragua, Guatemala, Nauru and The Marshall Islands.

The country’s “Taiwan can help” campaign has a humble agenda; to offer to share its knowledge and experience with other nations facing worse conditions.

“Over the past months, we have seen countless acts of bravery and sacrifice from medical workers around the world,” President Tsai said in a press conference earlier this week. “It is our duty as global citizens to give them our full support.”

“We need to step up cooperation, and that means sharing experiences and materials, and working together to develop treatments and vaccines.”

“Going forward, we will donate surplus masks and other supplies to our allies and countries hit hardest by Covid-19. These supplies will go to medical workers on the front lines who are working around the clock to save lives.”

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen tweeted her thanks, calling the donation a “gesture of solidarity” showing links between affected countries will lead them all to be “stronger together” in the fight against the coronavirus.

Prioritising its own citizens

Back in January, the country imposed strict export bans on surgical masks to ensure its manufacturing quantities of 10 million per day are kept within the country and used for its own citizens.

Taiwan also rationed the purchase of three masks per person per week through an app that offers status updates on 6000 chemists connected to offical database about the availability of masks. The stringent guidelines (the government now requires its citizens to wear masks while taking public transport and while indoors) and the relative efficiency in obtaining facemasks has been credited with helping to achieve a low number of cases and deaths. As of this morning, the country has reported 329 cases and five deaths.

In Australia, with only a 7% larger population than Taiwan, there are currently 5,224 confirmed cases and 23 deaths. 

Lessons from SARS

On 14 March 2003, the first cases of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) were reported in Taiwan’s hospitals, which over the course of several months, led to hundreds of reported cases.

Taiwan’s Department of Health initiated a system to respond to the potential spread of SARS resulting from the cases. Kolas Yotaka, the Executive Yuan spokesperson, who is aboriginal Taiwanese, told NBS News last month the country’s health insurance ensures citizens are comfortable visiting hospitals.

“If you suspect you have coronavirus, you won’t have to worry that you can’t afford the hospital visit to get tested,” she said.

“You can get a free test, and if you’re forced to be isolated, during the 14 days, we pay for your food, lodging and medical care. No one would avoid seeing the doctor because they can’t pay for health care.”

Stolid, calm leadership

There is something to be said of President Tsai’s consistent composure and self-assured comportment. The Cornell University law graduate and London School of Economics alumna has been credited for her relatable, congenital demeanour as president, a position she has held since May 2016.

Taiwanese friends and family of mine have spoken about the approachable tenor of her public persona, and noted her candid “reputation for being wonky.”

“She doesn’t use complicated language the way many world leaders do when they make a speech,” Helen Stenbeck said. “Her linguistic approach is much more down-to-earth. She wants to make sure everyone, regardless of class or background, understands her when she speaks. She speaks in a very colloquial manner.”

Stenbeck, who was born in Taiwan and emigrated to Australia at 12, closely follows Taiwanese news.

Though President Tsai might lack the charisma and out-going flair of some better-known world leaders, the citizens of Taiwan have grown increasingly endeared to her sincerity, intelligence and tenacity.

Calm down, and don’t panic about toilet paper

A poster issued from the Taiwan’s Ministry of Economics has been making its round on the digital ether.

“We only have one arse. Don’t stock pile. Don’t believe gossip,” reads the poster, followed by a graph informing citizens of the ingredients of toilet paper, and the place of manufacture. Taiwan is safe, they’re assuring its citizens. Taiwan will supply the sanitary needs of its citizens.

The poster also warns of harsh penalty for those seeking to make a profit from stockpiling essential needs; a maximum of three years jail and 300,000 NT. ($16,390)

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs insists the “Taiwan can help!” campaign is not just a slogan.

“Taiwan can in fact make a real difference through concrete action,” it announced in a press release.

“The international community must strengthen epidemic prevention and containment cooperation, together tackling the serious challenges posed by this pandemic, seeking global solutions, and helping others as much as we help ourselves.”

She loves dogs

I couldn’t help myself. It’s worth noting that President Tsai is a dog-lover and owner of three adorable labs.


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