James C.F. Huang, Chairman of Taiwan External Trade Development Council says that this global fight against Covid-19 should go beyond political disagreements.

New Delhi: Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the entire world. It has caught many countries unawares. As a result, these countries are finding it hard to control the situation even as the number of casualties is increasing day by day. However, Taiwan is one of the few countries which have been able to contain the spread of Covid-19 quite effectively. In an exclusive interview to The Sunday Guardian, JAMES C.F. HUANG, Chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA), said that it was possible due to swift and proactive response soon after the outbreak emerged in Wuhan. He said that the global pandemic was not necessarily an inevitable outcome and that Taiwan’s and other nations’ success in containing infections shows how effectively a viral epidemic can be managed with quick action and open coordination. Excerpts:
Q: Taiwan is one of the few countries which reported very few cases of Covid-19, compared to many other countries, including your neighbours. How were you able to control and manage the pandemic in your country so successfully?
A: There are two crucial factors which have allowed Taiwan to so far successfully manage the pandemic crisis. The first was a swift and proactive response as soon as the first reports of a viral outbreak in Wuhan emerged. As early as 31 December, 2019, before a single infection occurred in Taiwan, health officials were already checking all in-bound flights from China for passengers showing any kind of symptoms of respiratory pneumonia. Within one month, the Central Epidemic Command Centre was operating and treating the Covid-19 situation as a major threat.
President Tsai Ying-wen was quick to announce public safety measures such as strict border control and enforced 14-day quarantines for anyone entering the country from an affected area, all while many other countries were under the impression that they were safe from the infection.
The other factor which has been greatly beneficial is the high levels of coordination between our health care professionals and institutions. Because of our national healthcare system, we have been able to share information between hospitals quickly and effectively, in order to be best prepared for a sudden influx of patients. When there is a confirmed case, we have been able to immediately take steps to treat the patient, as well as investigate possible sources or at-risk individuals who were in contact with the infected person. The national efforts of our healthcare system have allowed us to constantly keep pace with the changing risks and conditions of the pandemic, as well as speed up development of research into the coronavirus to improve testing capabilities and work towards a possible vaccine.
Q: What steps did Taiwan take to prevent its spread in the very beginning?
A: The first case of Covid-19 was discovered in Taiwan on 21 January. Within three days, the government had implemented a ban on exporting face masks in order to ensure an adequate supply for citizens. Sale of masks was also strictly controlled, in order to make sure every individual had access to them, without people being able to buy and hoard masks for private use. The public was also quickly educated about proper procedures maintaining good hygiene, and mandatory temperature checks were established in all schools, as well as many other public spaces.
Crucially, the first local cases occurred during the Lunar New Year holiday, when many people travel back and forth between China and Taiwan. This made it imperative that we take action before the crisis was out of control; thus the winter break for schools was extended by two weeks, so that anyone who had been abroad would not immediately be reintroduced to a classroom environment. Hospitals also set up temperature check points, disinfectant stations, and established special protocols for handling Covid-19 cases, in order to prevent infections within health clinics. All of this was done with an urgency that demonstrates just how seriously the coronavirus situation was taken from the outset.
Q: Even as the World Health Organization (WHO) was in denial mode over the corona threat earlier, Taiwan started fighting it. Do you think WHO did inaccurate reporting of the cases in Taiwan? When did you understand that it was going to be a pandemic of such a proportion all over the world and did you warn the WHO? What did WHO do after the warning?
A: The global pandemic was not necessarily an inevitable outcome. Taiwan’s and other nations’ success in containing infections shows how effectively a viral epidemic can be managed with quick action and open coordination. In fact, in early January, the WHO was still stating that there was no need to implement any kind of travel restrictions to China, as they wanted to see if more information would come to light. In mid-January, the WHO was suggesting that the virus may be able to spread beyond China, while Taiwan’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control) was already claiming that human-to-human transmission would be a likely cause of an increased infection rate. While in medical science, it is valuable to collect data before jumping to conclusions, we can also see that this kind of delayed response can be disastrous when dealing with an unknown virus.
In many of the hardest hit places, the problem was a lack of preparation, which could have been averted if Taiwan’s advice had been followed. We have been very willing to share our knowledge and experience, and in January, Taiwan was already offering assistance to China in better understanding the virus. In the ensuing months, Taiwan has donated masks abroad, and our Minister of Health and Welfare, Chen Shih-Chung, has met with envoys of European countries to discuss containment methods. Fighting the virus needs to be a global effort which goes beyond political disagreements and labels.
As people, we need to come together in a time of crisis and share knowledge in a way that benefits all countries. That is what organisations like the United Nations must stand for, and Taiwan is more than willing to participate, whether we are a recognised member of the WHO or not.
Q. Do you think the lessons learnt during the SARS outbreak years ago came as an eye-opener for you?
A: Many of our current officials, both in the CDC and other levels of  government, lived through the SARS crisis and saw the problems it caused. That experience allowed us to move swiftly from the very first signs of a potential epidemic. But we also have the unique advantage of having many medical doctors in positions where they can shape policy and give recommendations. Most notably, our Vice President, Dr Chen Chien-Jen is a trained epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University, and he has been instrumental in helping the Taiwan government move forward in the face of this pandemic, guided by his own training, and his experience as Minister of the Department of Health during the SARS outbreak. There were also a number of published research papers after the SARS outbreak, attempting to understand what had worked and what had not. Many of the quarantine procedures used in our hospitals now are a result of the studies conducted in 2004 and 2005. We must also credit the Taiwanese people for immediately grasping the potential severity of the situation today, and remembering what the situation was like in 2003, being supportive and cooperative with government measures and recommendations.
Q: What do you think on India’s strategy to deal with the pandemic? Do you think it is going in the right direction, given the fact that it is a large country having a diverse population?
A:  We are impressed by India’s desire to reach out and learn more about the pandemic, while coordinating with our own doctors to contain the number of infections. In these past months, TAITRA (Taiwan External Trade Development Council) has acted as a bridge to link the knowledge and expertise gathered in Taiwan with doctors and medical staff in India who want to be on the cutting edge in the fight against Covid-19. In early April, Dr Po-Lin Chen of the National Cheng Kung University Hospital gave a keynote speech for a webinar which was attended by 9,000 Indian medical staff, who asked insightful questions and actively participated in the learning experience. TAITRA has also been working hard to directly connect Taiwan’s hospitals with those in India, whether it’s in exchanging knowledge and data, or in training Indian physicians to better cope with the challenges which lie ahead. India has its own unique challenges, but we are confident that through future exchanges of ideas and information, Taiwan and India will successfully control the coronavirus