The COVID-19 Crisis and “Minorities”: How Taiwan Is Showing the Way

Society Health World

Taiwan has been one of the notable successes of the COVID-19 crisis so far, having succeeded in suppressing the spread of the virus thanks to thorough border controls and prompt steps to stop the spread of new infections. Part of the reason for the success of these measures lies in the way the island has successfully learned from its history, argues Sumiki Hikari, a Japanese journalist based in Taiwan. Japan’s approach to fighting the coronavirus, by contrast, shows a lack of imagination and an inability to empathize with the anxieties and hardships of ordinary people.

Zero New Infections

On the night of April 14, the Grand Hotel Taipei, one of the city’s major landmarks, flashed a message of hope and inspiration: ZERO. Newly confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 in Taiwan had fallen to nothing for the first time. To celebrate, the hotel lit up with a message of appreciation for the hard work of the people who had worked together to achieve reach this important milestone.

In the weeks since then, the spread of the disease has remained under control, despite a cluster of new infections after servicemen with the Taiwanese Navy returned home from overseas, causing a brief spike in the numbers. As of April 28, there had been no new cases for three successive days—and no new cases of community infection for 16 days running.

This figure is a reassuring reminder that the community is being looked after. The sight of that “ZERO,” like a beacon of hope, gave me a real sense of the connection between myself as an individual and the wider society, and made me more aware than ever of the sense of security that comes from our connections with the community around us.

I am a foreigner in Taiwan. In that sense, I belong to a minority. I live here on a spousal visa, but do not have Taiwanese nationality. Nevertheless, throughout this ongoing crisis, I have come to feel a real sense of myself as part of the community. My circle of connections joins seamlessly with the broader community of Taiwanese society. For the first time in my life, I think, I feel a sense of total security: that there is no hole in society to fall into, because we are all looking out for one another.

Of course, there is no room for complacency. But the measures that Taiwan has taken against the coronavirus have so far been successful. As well as its success in suppressing the virus, Taiwan has also been a sign of inspiration for the world as it battles the pandemic: indicating a way forward and showing how a truly “developed” nation accommodates and cares for the minorities within its midst.

In early April, the BBC presenter Emily Maitlis created a stir when she opened the Newsnight program with a commentary that went against the prevailing political consensus, saying that “They tell us coronavirus is a great leveler. It’s not: It’s much, much harder if you’re poor.” The evidence supports this assessment. In many parts of the United States, for example, African-Americans have been disproportionately affected by the disease, and are statistically overrepresented among hospitalizations and fatalities compared to their numbers in the population. This is almost certainly due to the heavy toll exacted on minority communities by diabetes, coronary and respiratory diseases, and other underlying conditions. Poverty, social deprivation, and limited access to healthcare place people from ethnic minorities at an increased risk from COVID-19. And many people from this demographic perform unglamorous but vital work that cannot be done from home.

How Taiwan’s History Helped it Beat the Virus

In Taiwan, though, I have had a strong sense throughout the crisis that everyone is being protected equally, certainly in comparison to what we have seen in other parts of the world. This is true even on the micro level. Surgical masks, for example, have been made available for everyone: young and old, rich and poor alike.

Night markets and street food stalls are still open for business. Public museums and art galleries continue to operate, with some restrictions on visitor numbers and thorough disinfection measures in place. Children continue to attend school, bubbling with youthful energy and enthusiasm as usual. Education is one area in which economic disparities and different home environments can have a pronounced effect. If children cannot attend school and have to fall back on home schooling, different levels of availability of computing equipment and internet access in the home, not to mention enthusiasm for teaching and learning, can have a serious impact on the children’s long-term futures. Another factor is domestic violence. In 2019, 160,944 cases of domestic violence were reported in Taiwan, including 20,989 cases of mistreatment of children. Closing schools would mean exposing substantial numbers of children to the risk of abuse.

Taiwan has implemented some of the world’s toughest border closures and has taken resolute steps to prevent new infections. My experience of living here during the pandemic has shown me how vital honest and open disclosure of information is to building relationships of trust with the entire community. This might involve high social costs at first, but the risks of delay are incalculable. Leave it too late, and you may be left with choice but to place entire cities under lockdown. Acting quickly to win the trust of the community also makes it easier to guarantee the safety of minorities.

Consider, for instance, the historical background of Taiwan’s tense relationship with China, and the resulting decision not to reply on the World Health Organization, preferring instead to formulate its own policy. The experience gained from Taiwan’s previous experience with SARS. The decision to place experienced and able experts at the heart of government and trust and follow their advice . . . All these aspects have been widely noted and commented on. But for me, the fundamental reason for Taiwan’s success is to be found in the way the island has successfully put to good use the lessons of its history.

“No One’s an Outsider”

When WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused people in Taiwan of racially abusing him in early April, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen responded in no uncertain terms. “We’ve known how it feels to be discriminated against and isolated . . . as we have been excluded from global organizations for years,” she said. “Taiwan always objects to discrimination in any form. Our values are those of freedom, democracy, diversity, and tolerance. I’d like to invite Tedros to visit Taiwan, to see how devoted the people of Taiwan are to the international community despite being discriminated against and isolated.”

Taiwan’s modern history has been a long and uphill climb toward the values it has today. After 50 years as a Japanese colony, in 1945 the island was placed under the rule of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT. A prodemocracy movement became influential in the 1980s, leading to the lifting of martial law in 1987 and direct democratic elections in 1996.

Alongside the democracy movement, another thing that flourished during these years was a movement for greater minority rights. From the 1980s onward, Taiwan saw growing awareness of the need for fairer treatment and respect for women, indigenous groups, and sexual minorities. In 2005, a quota system was introduced requiring a certain proportion of women members of the Legislative Yuan, which has successfully increased the number of women in the national assembly.

One of the most popular slogans of the movement for aboriginal rights was “No one is an outsider.” This has helped to encourage people to realize that disasters and inequalities are things that affect them personally, encouraging them to feel involved and reach out to help. This was seen in the remarkable support and generous donations sent to Japan from Taiwan following the earthquake and tsunami disaster in 2011. 

In 2019, Taiwan became the first place in Asia to legalize gay marriage, and was recently ranked ninth in the global gender gap report (Japan is in 121st place).

A similar refusal to turn a blind eye played a large part in leading to the reelection of President Tsai Ing-wen in the presidential elections held in January this year, when support for civil rights demonstrations and protests in Hong Kong became a key issue in the campaign. Taiwan has witnessed the heavy-handed oppressiveness of the Chinese state at close hand, and has watched with concern its oppression of civil rights in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet, as well as its egregious and ongoing censorship of information and infringement of its own citizens’ basic human rights. Taiwan understands that its liberal values are too precious to be traded in for economic prosperity, and this awareness has become part of people’s sense of their Taiwanese identity. 

One of the questions raised by the current crisis is the extent to which a given community has successfully updated its values. Some people have made an issue of the fact that many countries that have been most successful at limiting fatalities, such as Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany, have female leaders.

But the answer is surely not that women make better leaders than men. Rather, countries that allow women to become leaders are more likely to prioritize new ideas and actual competence above traditional gender roles and hidebound cultural practices. They are more likely to value their minorities, and to be places whose societies have been flexible enough to change and evolve. Another example of Taiwan’s success in this regard is its digital minister Audrey Tang, who has become a well-known figure in Japan during the pandemic thanks to the app she developed to show regularly updated levels of face mask availability.

The Japanese Government’s Blindness to Minorities

How does Japan compare in terms of its treatment of gender and minority issues? Take the sudden decision to close schools across the country in early March. Setting aside for now the merits of the decision in terms of slowing the speed of infection, its precipitous announcement inevitably caused difficulties for single parents across the country. Although income support measures were announced to help parents who had to take time off work because of the closures, sex workers were initially excluded from these measures. Many sex workers are single mothers, and often these jobs are the only option for women struggling with serious poverty and other challenges. Following an urgent appeal by SWASH, a group that works for better working conditions for sex workers, the government eventually reconsidered its decision, but the episode served to underline the discriminatory attitudes to certain types of work within the Japanese government and its failure to consider the rights and interests of minority groups.

The government’s muddled and inconsistent messaging about measures to support households that had suffered a sudden loss of income also caused widespread dissatisfaction and concern. News reports that airline employees, mostly female cabin attendants, would be called in to help sew personal protective equipment were widely criticized as outdated and provided more evidence of how out-of-touch many in the government are when it comes to views about women’s “appropriate” role in society.

One thing that strikes me in all the reports I hear from Japan is the paralyzing lack of imagination and an inability to empathize with the anxieties and struggles of ordinary people. Not long ago, an employee at a nightclub in Taipei was found to be infected with the coronavirus. The Taiwanese government ordered all nightclubs and dancehalls to close. But within a week of this decision, the government announced emergency support for all employees without exception, offering compensation that ranged from the equivalent of around ¥35,000 to ¥110,000.

The government has also played an important role in public education on gender issues. When boys at Taiwanese schools complained that they were embarrassed to be seen wearing the pink masks that had been distributed, Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare and head of the Centers of Disease Control, appeared at a press conference proudly sporting one of the pink masks himself and going out of his way to remark on what a “cool” color it was.

What do I mean by terms like imagination and empathy? Watching the response of Chen and other members of the Taiwanese government throughout this crisis has brought home to me an essential truth: In reality, they are built on nothing less than love. 

Minorities and Global Issues

“I believe that the WHO will only truly complete when Taiwan is included,” said President Tsai Ing-wen in her remarks to that body’s Director General Tedros.

We live in a globalized world, built on the idea of free movement of people and things. Even at the height of the pandemic, while passenger traffic remains frozen, commodities and manufactured products continue to move around the world in vast quantities. Cargo planes and container ships continue to crisscross the world. Is it not possible that the virus might be carried from one part of the world to another in this way? Massive ships and oil tankers continue to cross navigate ply the seas: can we really rule out the possibility of another onboard outbreak like the one that happened on the Diamond Princess cruise ship? For Taiwan, which is heavily dependent on imports and exports, new hardships and difficulties no doubt lie ahead.

Even if the virus is successfully eradicated in one part of the world, there will be no true end to the threat until all countries around the world have achieved the same success. For as long as Taiwan remains excluded from the world’s international organizations, the global community is like a jigsaw puzzle with a crucial piece missing.

The same thing can be said about minorities. When minorities are allowed to fall out of the safety net of social welfare, this can easily lead to a new spike in infections, increasing the risk for everyone. The current crisis has brought into vivid focus an essential truth about the world: our modern global society is a vast web of human connections. We are all linked. None of us can be outsiders.

We must not allow exclusionary policies to allow minorities fall beyond the reach of social welfare and protective measures, thus exposing them and the rest of society to the risk of new outbreaks. Minorities too are vital, irreplaceable members of our fragile network of human connections.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 30, 2020. Banner photo: The Taipei Grand Hotel flashes a message celebrating zero new daily infections in Taiwan on April 17, 2020. © AFP/Aflo.)

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