Having returned to the UK late last year and with a Taiwanese spouse remaining in Taiwan, I have been afforded the chance to compare and contrast the UK and Taiwanese governments’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis. My early conclusions are that Taiwan benefits from a rational, competent government, which quickly recognizes, adapts to and confronts large-scale disasters. It is led by a government that does more than just talk of respecting democracy and human rights, one that is scrutinized and responds to criticism, one that is concerned about public opinion, and one that is used to dealing with emergencies on a regular basis, such as earthquakes and typhoons, not forgetting the ever-present existential threat of Chinese armed forces trained and equipped to invade, annex and brutally occupy the nation at a moment’s notice.
When the virus first began to spread, the Taiwanese government immediately recognized the vulnerable position its proximity and business ties to China presented. It did not argue about the economy: It knew that if the disease were to rage uncontrolled across the country, it would severely damage it anyway. The priority, it appears, was containment and preventing spread, and that would allow the most people to keep working, earning, and spending.
Hence, early on, flights from China were suspended, all visitors or returning citizens were put in a mandatory and policed 14-day quarantine, and incredibly a system was set up to provide everyone three masks a week using the National Health Insurance (NHI) card from all participating clinics and pharmacies linked to the NHI within a week.
As a result, after three months, Taiwan has had fewer than 200 cases and half a dozen deaths. Following WHO rules, like South Korea and Vietnam, Taiwan went to work testing and tracing all cases.
That the disease spread out of control in China and did not in Taiwan is ample illustration of how independent Taiwan actually is. Had it been a part of China, “Chinese Taipei,” or “Taiwan, China,” it would surely have been dealing with the same severity of outbreak as across the Taiwan Strait.
Taiwanese have long learned not to believe Chinese figures, yet in the West we now see a slew of articles pointing to China’s “good metrics” on “flattening the curve.”
It was China’s, and the Chinese Communist Party’s, instinctive reflex to suppress news of the outbreak and sanction the doctors identifying it that led to the spread of the disease outside of Wuhan and then the wider world. Any casualty figures out of China should probably have at least one or two zeros added to them before they can be considered with any kind of credibility.
The contrast with the actions taken, or not taken, by a supposed “advanced” and “developed” Western nation that is the sixth-wealthiest on the planet could not be starker. The UK has still at the time of writing not implemented testing and tracing at airports. Passengers are still flooding into Heathrow and other airports and getting on local public transport without even basic thermal imaging to identify high temperatures. Taiwan implemented that after the SARS outbreak in 2003.
Then there is the almost genocidal strategy of the government of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (many of whom, including the prime minister and the minister of health now have the virus themselves) in first downplaying the severity and risk, then refusing the shut down transport and schools, then advancing what can only be called a eugenics policy of “herd immunity” at a time when no-one had any idea of whether the virus produced antibodies in survivors that would prevent repeat infection.
We still do not know the answer to that question, but once their transparently cruel and idiotic idea finally collapsed, Johnson relented and issued a lockdown, arguably two to three weeks too late, and months after being informed of the danger of the disease by an article in the Lancet at the end of January.
The British public was grossly misinformed of the scale of the problem by a government that obviously sought to protect the economy from the virus, but not the workers whose labor actually produces the material and social wealth the economy is built on. The man who boasted of shaking hands with COVID-19 patients is now running the UK from isolation.
At this point, it is probably fair to estimate that as many as one-quarter or half of all politicians in the British government and the mainstream media in the UK which shilled Johnson back into office (collectively they can be called the “polidia” given their deep integration and cooperation) now have the disease, and Westminster and London by extension, are now the main COVID-19 hotspots in the UK.
The high number of celebrities with the disease shows how it spread among people who have traditionally faced the fewest questions and barriers to entry at customs. Their desperation, and ability to pay any sum to escape or secure preferential testing and treatment, was a key vector for the global spread of the disease.
That COVID-19 can infect asymptomatically was possibly one of the worst aspects of the disease as millions of people rushed home, taking it with them.
However, as bad as the disease is, Taiwan has shown that with competent and quick leadership it can be controlled. In the UK, there are tests for the rich and famous, but almost none for anyone else, including hospital staff.
Therefore it is the government and its actions that have had the greatest impact on the spread of the disease, and the two nations most responsible, the UK and the US, are the ones with far-right extremist ideological governments that run on PR and narrative framing and cutting government expenditure so that it can be funnelled instead into the private sector.
As someone on my Twitter timeline so insightfully noted, Johnson was not elected to lead in crisis and his party only knows how to cut spending or outsource provision. They have no ideological commitment to the people as a concept, only to power insofar as it can be decorated with a Union Jack and a sheepish smile with a ruffle of the hair.
Johnson was elected to “get Brexit done” and now he has let COVID-19 in. However, his failures as a leader are only the latest of his party in governance, whose ignorant, cavalier, callous slashing of budgets set the stage for the crisis.
For the past decade, the Conservative government in the UK implemented unnecessary and cruel cuts to social services, care and the British National Health Service (NHS) totaling almost ￡36 billion (US$44.17 billion). Conservative lawmakers cheered from the back benches in parliament as they passed the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, which decimated services and began the process of privatizing the NHS via salami slicing of services for private companies with no record of effective healthcare management and service provision to profit from.
Then it introduced Universal Credit as a replacement for benefits, causing an estimated 120,000 people to die as a result, many of whom were disabled.
Those cuts continued well into last year, despite Johnson’s first act as prime minister declaring that “austerity” was over. It was not, and the effects of it became hideously apparent as soon as the crisis broke.
Doctors, nurses and paramedics are treating COVID-19 patients without proper personal protective equipment; they are getting sick themselves, they are dying on the front lines and some are taking their own lives.
Before the last election the Johnson government promised 50,000 new nurses and 20,000 new police officers, but these would only effectively replace the ones they had axed through systematic and targeted funding cuts.
As a result, the UK’s capacity for ICU beds fell by thousands nationwide. The government is now scrabbling to find companies to make ventilators, but when existing producers have offered help they have been snubbed in favor of companies like JCB and Dyson run by Conservative party donors, despite them having no expertise in manufacturing medical equipment.
Johnson’s government is using a national emergency to help its friends profit.
In a less tolerant age and place, the kind of deliberate cynical maladministration demonstrated by Johnson, and major business owners refusing to cover the pay of workers they have laid off, and landlords trying to evict tenants who have lost their jobs because of the lockdown — not to forget those hoarding and spiking prices of everyday goods — would likely have resulted in an orderly line of them being led to the “King Charles I Departure Lounge.” Perhaps this is one reason that a ban on evictions was just announced, some weeks after landlords were awarded a three-month mortgage holiday.
However, while pressure from outrage on social media has swung the dial a bit toward humanity, empathy, compassion and collaboration, Johnson’s party and government know that a vast majority of the British media is far-right and would blindly support him, however many contortions and contradictions that forces them into.
Johnson might well be overthrown by the summer, but do not underestimate the ability of the British public to tug their forelocks and look to blame anyone but the government. That would not be patriotic in a time of national crisis apparently.
From across the world in the UK I can only look with longing to a nation with a functional democracy, a more politically literate population, with no polidia acting as an opinion and narrative firewall against any policy or leader slightly left of center-right, and with a president who is a policy wonk brave enough to take the decisions necessary to protect the people.
Today, Taiwan is a more advanced, developed, democratic nation than the UK. For all its wealth, the UK should look to and learn from Taiwan for examples of how a more civilized nation responds to a national emergency.
For all Taiwanese considering coming to the UK, or who have rose-colored images of my nation, please get your immunizations beforehand, pack extra toilet roll and remember that you are visiting a nation that is falling apart at the seams.
Please take the same precautions as you would visiting any divided, sick, corrupt and criminally underdeveloped country.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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