Taiwan was able to track phones and use this data to institutequarantines, something that was never even considered in the US. In the US, my compatriots would think ofthese things as “draconian” or authoritarian, but they never felt that way tome.
PCUSA held a regional retreat in Thailand in January 2020 for PCUSA missionaries in Asia, and during our week in Thailand we heard about a new coronavirus that had emerged in China. One of our bosses prepared masks for all of us as we prepared to travel. When we came back to Taiwan the airports were already on higher alert—using heat cameras to check temperatures, checking baggage, and doing surveys about travel with contact info (at this point we hadn’t yet learned the words “contact tracing,” but Taiwan was working on it). We later learned that when the Taiwanese CDC had heard about the new virus in Wuhan they had sent a team to do initial research in December.
Our family was not here during the SARS years and so we did not experience the ways Taiwan had to fight the disease. In the months since then, Taiwan has become one of the models for dealing with COVID. It was an education for us, and it showcased the best of Taiwan. Taiwan is sometimes described as “technocratic,” meaning it gives more credence to professionals and formal expertise. The president, Tsai Ing-Wen, is an economist, and her vice president was an epidemiologist. Taiwan also had other major helps: (1) experience dealing with SARS in 2003 and then working out responses to subsequent threats (MERS, swine flu, etc.), (2) being a smaller island with limited points of entry, (3) a citizenry that was relatively well prepared for the basic interventions (increasing mask production, checking temperatures and spraying hands for schools and workplaces, contact tracing, etc.), and (4) a national health care system that simplifies and nationalizes treatment. Watching these as an American, I was really impressed by the things Taiwan could do that my own country could not.
In the beginning it was still a big adjustment. Taiwan’s new year break was three weeks and then the government cancelled school for two additional weeks, also pushing back the start of colleges and the seminary where I teach. The joke was that when school was cancelled “grandparents started receiving phone calls.” By the time our kids returned to school in early March they had been out of session for five weeks. At the time, we felt frustrated by the long break and the challenges of travel, grading, and class prep while the kids were with us, but in retrospect it was a window in which Taiwan was able to ramp up its response. During this time, Americans were largely unaware and the US had taken minimal action against the mounting threat of the novel coronavirus.
With PCUSA the discussion started once COVID-19 began to reach the US and locations outside of Asia and Europe. We received our first note on February 29, heard about a ban on international travel on March 10, and a letter went to partners (like PCT) on March 13. On March 21, our family received a formal directive with four situations or choices (1. return to the US immediately, 2. wish to return to US but currently unable to, 3. unable to leave and prefer to stay, 4. wish to remain and shelter in place). We wrote up a request to shelter in place and also contacted partners to ask for letters supporting our decision. At first, it sounded like PCUSA expected everyone to return to the US and the decision to stay would be on a case-by-case basis.
As a family we were very nervous about traveling through multiple airports and we didn’t have a logical place to stay in the US (my parents are in a retirement home and Emily’s are in a small house). We also worried about being a burden and disrupting the kids’ lives, as their life has been disrupted regularly by travel as it is. Moreover, we trusted Taiwan to do a good job. As part of the PCUSA process we updated our “contingency forms,” which describe our emergency plans. I was surprised to see that when I submitted my first plan to PCUSA World Mission more than a decade ago I’d written.
“Taiwan is an island with a very strong CDC. I expect that in the event of serious pandemic the whole island would close itself off and there would be a protocol to follow for isolation in cities. Because of the SARS epidemic, Taiwan is probably much better prepared than almost any other country to deal with this.”
Our petition to stay in Taiwan was quickly approved. Later we learned that around 40 mission workers returned to the US and 70 stayed abroad, with some of those waiting on travel to return.
PCUSA did make two requests at first. (1) They encouraged us to withdraw our children from school and (2) they wanted me to teach online and not go to Taiwan Seminary. To a reader here in Taiwan these sounds like strange requests, and we were not happy about them. At the same time, PCUSA was suddenly dealing with missionaries in dozens of countries and was trying to implement rules to manage the crisis. Our twins attend a 2000 persons public school, with 400 kids in their third graded class split among 14 classrooms. Initially PCUSA encouraged us to disenroll them, but later we were given the option to leave them there. They ended up finishing out the semester. Sam attends a primarily English language church school with only around 250 students. His school went online for a month and implemented a lot of the rules about masks, distancing, and contact. We were so grateful that our kids were able to continue in school in Taiwan.
We have watched many US friends doing “online school” this year. They have not been able to participate in sports, go to performances, or attend church in person.
COVID-19 and Democracy
One of the interesting pieces of watching COVID-19 has been how culture plays into the crisis. Early on I was impressed by the ways in which Taiwan was willing to do things that my culture could not or would not do. An early example was the decision to stop the children of Taiwanese parents from returning from China. Another was the immediate use of social tracing (the US has over 100 international airports and we made basically no effort to track arrivals or limit the return of US citizens abroad). Another example was strict quarantines with heavy penalties; in the US quarantine was always voluntary. Taiwan was able to track phones and use this data to institute quarantines, something that was never even considered in the US. Other examples include requiring students to clean classrooms, making alcohol spray and temperature checks mandatory, and so on.
Taiwan is a democracy and most of its citizens applauded these moves. In the US, my compatriots would think of these things as “draconian” or authoritarian, but they never felt that way to me. It did not feel to me like the government was doing any of these things to gain power, or to manipulate people. Instead, I really admired how the Taiwanese government used the best science to provide the most benefits.
The US often felt like the opposite. I honestly blame Donald Trump for much of the response. He repeatedly said COVID-19 would just go away, that common drugs would stop it, that it was all China’s fault, that it was like the flu. He made fun of wearing masks. He ignored the advice of our CDC. He pitted US states against each other as they sought to obtain masks, and ventilators, and other supplies. COVID-19 spread throughout the White House and Trump downplayed its seriousness. In the US, many of us believe he encouraged anti-Asian racism and behavior, and used minorities as a scapegoat for the failure to control COVID-19. Trump discouraged closing churches around Easter and he kept holding huge rallies.
Trump ironically showed both the limits and the strengths of US democracy. He showed how much impact one bad leader can have and he also showed how a strength of democracy is that we can remove terrible leaders. I cannot overstate how glad I am that he is gone. Since then, our government advice is more rationale, the vaccination movement has improved, and we hope the end is in sight. Still, Trump showed a new type of US politics and it is one that leaders around the world are emulating. Ironically, leaders in Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines, and China will now use his terrible policies as a model for how to build support.
Still, Americans themselves were also pretty terrible at responding to COVID-19. I saw this in my family and in myself. Many questioned shutdowns, continued to go out to meet friends, shook hands and hugged, and on and on.
At one point a family member referred to our life in Taiwan as like “Shangri-la.” They said it jokingly, but throughout this experience there has a been a mythic element to Taiwan’s success. Because of Taiwan’s experience fighting SARS, its strong medical system, its obedient citizens, and its rational use of science, the country has really thrived.