The “Wuhan pneumonia” outbreak has become a pandemic, but many countries have yet to come to grips with the worsening severity of this medical crisis.
Historian Robert Peckham has studied how the ecology of deadly diseases has changed from the late 19th century until today and, in his 2016 book titled Epidemics in Modern Asia highlights the intrinsic link between global connectivity and emerging infections.
The frequency of outbreaks — from SARS in 2003 to swine flu in 2009 and today’s COVID-19 — and their rapid rate of transmission owe much to globalization. Better and cheaper transportation and communications technology have empowered international aviation, shipping and railroad networks, contributing to mobility — both people and commodities — and popularizing tourism.
Yet, the institutional drivers and mechanisms propelling globalization have made the world “flat” — to borrow from New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman — and spread the pandemic in a short period.
In reaping the material benefits of globalization, people often overlook the invisible risk of emerging infections, which can spread across continents, affecting people in vulnerable conditions and destabilizing economies worldwide.
Many nations have invoked the vocabulary of war to characterize their struggle against the coronavirus, the archenemy of humankind. As the first epicenter of the pandemic, China mobilized all of its medical and bureaucratic resources to confront what President Xi Jinping (習近平) called a “people’s war” against COVID-19, echoing mass health movements and social programs of the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era.
The mighty Chinese Communist Party state relied on its longstanding system of urban and rural neighborhood surveillance to restrict mobility. Local party cadres and police officers set up roadblocks on major roads and at public squares, guarding the entrances to government offices, medical facilities, schools and apartment buildings.
These officials continually checked temperatures, disinfected residences and stopped outsiders from entering their territory. This combination of top-down rigorous surveillance and community cooperation is thought by Beijing to have slowed down the spread of the coronavirus outside of Wuhan.
The rhetoric of combatting the coronavirus is not unique to China. Once a localized outbreak, this pandemic has invaded the rest of the world, with consequences that boggle the imagination.
The surge in confirmed infections and deaths has prompted countries in the Global North to implement similar tactics: suspending public gatherings, closing national borders and imposing lockdowns on billions of people.
With global connectivity and viral transmission reinforcing each other, the overlapping social, economic and political risks posed by the pandemic demand radical intervention by government officials, medical personnel and businesspeople at all levels.
Taiwan deserves credit for its bold, decisive and systematic efforts to handle the crisis. Even without being a WHO member, the nation, led by highly educated and competent policymakers who have faith in medical science and reason, has implemented aggressive crisis management. Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) is a respected epidemiologist, while his successor, vice president-elect William Lai (賴清德), specializes in public health and rehabilitative medicine.
The nation has employed communications networks driven by artificial intelligence to identify, isolate and monitor infected people and trace their contacts — a use of technology that serves the common good.
By adopting a case-by-case tracking system to test elderly people and those with chronic medical conditions, officials have carefully identified locals and visitors thought to have come into contact with COVID-19, and contained high-risk groups to slow down the virus’ spread.
The government has canceled public gatherings, implemented mandatory quarantines, and promoted the importance of personal hygiene through the media and public health education. Since early February, it has also enforced effective border controls, keeping travelers from China, Hong Kong, Macau and other hard-hit areas out of Taiwan.
Hong Kong and Macau might not have seen as many cases as Wuhan, but their international ports can serve as major conduits of viral infection. Since January, their borders have been open to countless high-risk travelers, including daily commuters who reside in China’s Shenzhen and Zhuhai, but cross into the territories for work.
Infected travelers who early on passed through the territories’ ports and airports allegedly increased the rate of transmission to the rest of the world.
At a time when many countries are still developing measures to cope with the pandemic, Taiwan has much to offer to the outside world. Its logical, comprehensive and balanced measures not only benefit its own population, but also serve as a model of disease prevention and control.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a history professor at Pace University in New York City.
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