Who came up with the idea of quarantine hotels during the COVID-19 pandemic? The question has turned into an argument between independent Taipei mayoral candidate Vivian Huang (黃珊珊) and her Democratic Progressive Party rival, Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who was until recently minister of health and welfare and head of the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC).
Chen Chia-wen (陳嘉文) is the founder of the Horizon Inn (大地清旅) in Taipei, which became Taiwan’s first quarantine hotel. He said that the quarantine hotel idea came about through the joint efforts of himself, the Taipei Department of Information and Tourism, and a team led by then-deputy mayor Huang. However, his account confuses the stages of invention and implementation.
In 2003, when the SARS virus spread from China to Taiwan, the Taipei City Government’s mishandling of epidemic prevention led to an outbreak within Taipei City Hospital’s Heping Fuyou Branch, generally known as Heping Hospital. The city government then took the emergency measure of sealing off the hospital. Some experts suggested that the hospital should be locked down block by block so that affected staff and patients could be kept in isolation.
I was at the time director-general of the Department of Health, which later became the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and I promptly telephoned then-Taipei Department of Health commissioner Chiou Shu-ti (邱淑媞) and told her that she should ask the mayor and deputy mayors to help find suitable city government premises or hotels to isolate the Heping Hospital staff.
Having previously been commissioner of Taipei’s Department of Health, I knew that Taipei City Hospital had sufficient medical capacity to cope with epidemic prevention and its staff were up to the job, but I also knew that arrangements concerning things like civil affairs, policing and the recruitment of quarantine hotels would require the joint efforts of all related departments and offices. This is why the “regional commanding officers” that the Communicable Disease Control Act (傳染病防治法) says should be appointed during epidemics are supposed to be mayors and county commissioners rather than health department chiefs.
Invention is one thing and implementation is another. The CECC’s experts propose policies and ideas, and local governments are responsible for implementing them. The cooperation of private businesses might also be needed to solve problems in the implementation. During the SARS outbreak, Taipei’s slow implementation of the isolation accommodation policy led to the mistake of placing all the Heping Hospital staff together in the hospital’s auditorium, which caused more infections and sparked protests by the staff.
As a hotelier, Chen Chia-wen does not know the entire procedure involved in epidemic control or fully appreciate how policies are thought up, but he does know how much hard work went into implementing solutions to the quarantine hotels problem. That is why he said that he and Huang came up with the idea.
However, that is a misunderstanding, as if Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) did not exist.
To be precise, Chen Chia-wen and the city government implemented the idea of setting up quarantine hotels. The central government came up with the idea and local authorities implemented it, just as one would expect.
The only strange thing is that anyone is arguing about it. Perhaps the mayoral candidates have done too much campaigning for their own good.
Twu Shiing-jer is a former health minister, head of the Central Epidemic Command Center and mayor of Chiayi City.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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