Taipei intern impressed by Taiwan's COVID response

In February this year, Nathan Hotter began his internship with Taipei City Government, Taiwan, and quickly found himself caught up with the city’s COVID-19 response. He says he was impressed by Taiwan’s decisive actions and surprised by the seemingly nonchalant approach he witnessed in New Zealand when his internship was cut short and he had to return home in March.
Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je talking to an official during a press conference

Nathan accompanied Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je when he visited a housing development to see how hygiene practices were being observed

When I first arrived in Taipei, my internship organisers - Pagoda Projects - gave me a surgical mask. Initially I was reluctant to wear a mask, all the advice in New Zealand had been that they were ineffective for the general public. But, I started wearing one every day, like everyone else in the city.

Taiwan’s response to the virus, even before it was declared a pandemic, was excellent from the beginning. I was struck by how effectively and efficiently the country moved.

Taiwan introduced mask rationing early on so that everyone could have protection. Mask supplies were still short, but you could purchase one each morning after the convenience stores received their delivery.

These measures seem to have been effective as Taiwan is now COVID free and donating masks in the millions to struggling countries across the globe.

COVID-19 was the first and foremost issue within Taipei City Government as well, with the government having to readjust plans and amend travel.

So, my very first contribution to the operations of Taipei City Government was research on the virus's spread and when some normality might return. Looking back on my estimate that after June things might start improve is interesting from today’s perspective.

Taiwan had contacted the WHO with concerns about the virus on the 31 December, rather than relying on what was being made public by China.

When I departed New Zealand in February, we were still allowing visitors from Wuhan and China into the country, something that Taiwan had begun to closely monitor and control at the start of January.

To assess the situation, Taipei City Government kept a regular tally of Taiwanese COVID-19 cases and those spreading globally.

After the first two weeks (in mid to late February) further measures were implemented at Taipei City Government offices. I was temperature screened every time I arrived at work and provided with hand sanitiser. The same thing happened whenever you went into a mall or a shopping centre. Cases were traced rapidly and isolated early.

eachers, principals and council representatives wearing masks at the launch of a bilingual textbook

Teachers, principals and council representatives wearing masks at the launch of a bilingual textbook

All of these actions in Taiwan were occurring a month before I came home to New Zealand. When I returned, I was stunned to see what was happening here.

At the airport, none of those monitoring people arriving wore masks, my temperature wasn’t checked and all I had to do was fill out a form (which they only used once to check up on me). It was shocking to see how lax everything was compared to how extensive the protective measures were in Taipei.

While I was at home isolating, the number of cases in New Zealand started rapidly increasing and three weeks later we were at level 4 lockdown because of the lack of preparation at the start.

We had to take extreme measures because we had not prepared fast enough. It really surprised me how blasé the situation was being taken, at least inititialy.

If we were on top of things early, we wouldn’t have needed to increase our defensive measures. Taiwan never required a full lockdown.

Taiwan has also only had 455 cases so far, and currently has no community transmission, despite all their links with Asia.

In the discussion of opening a trans-Tasman or Pacific bubble, Taiwan should definitely be included. They have things under control, more so than Australia at any rate. They are also one of our larger trading partners.

Nathan checking a bilingual textbook before its launch

Nathan checking a bilingual textbook before its launch

Beyond COVID-19, I still managed to have a fascinating experience getting to know the city and its people. This was my second time in Taipei, so it was exciting to get back and spend more time exploring.

My role at Taipei City Government also included managing social media, organising events, researching, preparing for meetings, and I even got to travel with the Mayor on a couple of days, documenting his trips for social media posts.

One of the most unusual things I got to do was build the Taipei city logo out of Lego for the Danish ambassador when the mayor had a meeting with him.

Working for Taipei City Government was great – an incredible crash course in working life.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.