Taiwan measures itself against what it doesn’t want to become – a twinned version of its authoritarian relative and neighbour, China.
Unlike China, Taiwan is a nimble and dynamic democracy that despite its openness has successfully contained the pandemic. With 440 cases of infection and seven deaths, it is making its western counterparts look sclerotic and slow.
The government’s strategy has been to entrust its people with handling the crisis themselves, drawing on their experience of the 2003 SARS epidemic and leveraging Taiwan’s world-leading technology sector.
At the heart of this strategy is Audrey Tang, Digital Minister in a cabinet assembled by the newly re-elected president, Tsai Ing-Wen.
Tang is a high school drop-out and software engineer who had founded three start-ups by her early twenties and has worked for Apple in Silicon Valley. Now 33, she is a libertarian with a conscience, and Taiwan’s first transgender senior political executive.
Much has been written about Taiwan’s clever use testing and contact tracing, but Tang attributes her country’s successful containment of Covid-19 to something else: “the collective intelligence of a vibrant society”.
From the outset, she observes, the Taiwanese government avoided “top-down” restrictions such as lockdowns and contact tracing apps. Instead, it rolled out a three-pillar Covid strategy nailed down by an inter-disciplinary cabinet of largely technocratic senior ministers, which includes scientific experts and is led by their female president, an academic with a doctorate in law.
Those three pillars merge in a slogan: “Fast, fair and fun.” “Fast” refers to speed of social mobilisation, on which more in a moment. “Fair” is the equitable distribution of protective equipment and resources from the nation’s world-beating healthcare system. The “fun” part involves mainly ridiculing the conspiracy theories and propaganda with which Beijing-backed groups flood Taiwan’s media landscape. It’s a “humour over rumour” approach, “to make scientific knowledge have a higher basic transmission rate than fake news and disinformation”.
Underpinning the strategy are the lessons learnt from Taiwan’s wake-up call from SARS, when – like the UK over the past three months – it too experienced the chaos of panic buying and cross-wired communication between ministries, municipalities and over-centralised structures.
Taiwan’s final death toll from SARS was 73, which Tang says was
“73 too many”. It committed the country to focus on both social and technical preparedness for future viral outbreaks.
In the absence of a SARS vaccine, and with no promise of one for Covid-19, Tang believes in “societal inoculation”. Yearly pandemic drills and institutional memory have kept social awareness commitment levels high; Tang speaks with pride of her nation’s healthcare system, ranked the world’s best by the Global Health Care Index, with close to 100% national health insurance coverage.
When Covid hit, Taiwan quickly activated its Centralised Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), which collects real-time information and implements “transparent surveillance measures” aimed at strengthening societal participation.
Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, a career epidemiologist, rejected widespread testing, believing that the dangers of false negatives would lead to a greater spread of the disease. He focused on people-to-people contact tracing instead.
A minimally intrusive app strictly upheld “digital fencing,” and helped isolate people with Covid and returning travellers for a period of two weeks, alerting local health managers and the police with an SMS if the individual broke a 50 metre quarantine radius.
Mobilising Taiwanese citizens was not difficult. For anyone of her generation, Tang says, the existential threat does not lie in China’s attempts to subsume Taiwan into a “one country two-system” rule, which its people have systematically rejected, but in their country’s proximity to China’s communicable diseases.
For many older Taiwanese there is an even deeper fear of a return to the “bad old days of martial law”, which ended in 1987. As a result, while younger Taiwanese accept a higher level of digital intrusion than might be expected, the older generation ensures there is a check against government excesses.
Tang is quick to point out that Taiwan’s digital fencing app does not track individuals inside that 50 metre radius fence. It uses existing telecoms data and blockchain-like technology, so that no extra data is collected or retained. People’s identity is not held beyond the period of quarantine, following a post-SARS legislative decision that makes it unconstitutional even during a period of national emergency.
To avoid, in Tang’s words, “the fear, uncertainty and doubt of panic buying”, another open-data app, running on a version of blockchain software known as a GitHub ledger, recorded all stocks of freely-available face masks and sanitisers in pharmacies nationwide, with updates every three seconds at the height of the emergency. (They now come every three minutes.)
But oddly for a nation so advanced in information technology and precision engineering, the most important technology in the fight against Covid is soap, says Tang. “People don’t need a top-down order to wash their hands, people remind each other to wash their hands well.” Nor do they need to be told to wear face masks or socially distance.
Similarly, it wasn’t their strong biotech sector that led Taiwan to be one of the first countries to alert the world to a new human-to-human transmission that looked a lot like SARS. It was a social media post by the Chinese whistleblower Dr Li Wenliang at around 2am on 31 December 2019. Tang remembers it like the date of a declaration of war.
People were getting sick in Wuhan, and Taiwanese social media picked it up immediately. A few hours later, on 1 January, health inspections were being carried out on flights to Taiwan from Wuhan, followed by the banning of all flights from China in early February.
Tang talks fluently about the importance of having an active civil society that empowers itself through an open-source governance system that she helped to build. “We see the coronavirus also acting as a great amplifier,” she says. “In Taiwan, we put data controllership ultimately in the social sector.” It’s not, in other words, a place for politicians who like hoarding secret information.
“Realtime open data through [blockchain] ledgers is one of the most powerful ways democracy can empower everybody, not just the people who are decision-makers,” Tang explains. “Trusting people with open data…is essential, and sometimes people trust back. Sometimes they don’t, but it’s all OK.”
She believes countries that encourage social innovation will develop new privacy enhancing technologies, “empowering personal freedom of thought.” Data should be “curated and produced by everyday citizens,” helping to make government more transparent. Taiwanese children are taught in school how to be data producers, not just consumers. A big part of teachers’ role is to remind children to check their sources; “to not repeat what you hear, but rather to do some fact-checking to understand the framing effect on society”.
Could Tang-style technology be an answer to fracturing social cohesion and public trust in Western democracies? Her reply should come with an upside-down smiley face emoji. “We don’t care that much about whether people trust the government or not, but we care a lot about the government trusting its people.”
Photographs Getty Images, Courtesy Audrey Tang / Pixabay