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How Taiwan was coronavirus-ready while the U.S. got caught with its "pants down"

Taiwan model keeps COVID-19 pandemic at bay
How Taiwan used data and tech to stop the spread of COVID-19 03:02

The streets of Taiwan are bustling, restaurants are open to diners, schools only shut down for two weeks in February, and even the baseball season is in full swing — though one team temporarily relied on mannequin spectators. With a population of nearly 24 million, the island has had just 7 coronavirus deaths, and thanks to rapid contact tracing and testing, fewer than 450 total COVID-19 infections.

All that, despite sitting only about 80 miles from mainland China, where the pandemic began.

"We have been planning for any kind of pandemic that may affect Taiwan," Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told CBS News, "because back in 2003, Taiwan was hit very hard by SARS."

Seventeen years of pandemic planning, and "we will not stop," added Wu.

Students eat their lunches on desks with plastic partitions as a preventive measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus at Dajia Elementary School in Taipei, April 29, 2020. SAM YEH/AFP/Getty

Taiwan already had a public health disaster command center ready to activate, generous stockpiles of protective gear, and Taiwanese companies have invested in high-tech solutions, including robotic testing machines.

Crucially, the government started warning the public of how serious the new coronavirus was back in January. The health minister even broke down in tears as he announced a new infection.

Professor Robert Brook, an American public health expert who has studied Taiwan's response, contrasts that bluntly to the preparedness and early reaction by the U.S. government: "It appears like we were caught sort of with our pants down."

"It's a combination of courage and innovation," he told CBS News, stressing that in such a crisis leaders must put aside partisan bickering, "and just say 'we really don't have time to waste — we're in this together.'"

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Another advantage Taiwan had was a universal healthcare system that keeps records on every resident, which were easily married with immigration data to make tracing infections much easier.

"I tend to believe that we need to share a lot more data," Brooks said, "to prevent ourselves from having catastrophic results when something attacks us like a virus."

Taiwan was lauded for its COVID-19 response despite being shut out of World Health Organization meetings due to opposition from China's central government. 

Still, Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Center on U.S. and China Relations, told CBSN earlier this month that it had been "a really great several months for Taiwan in the international community."

Taiwan's coronavirus response shines spotlight on international status 05:19

"Taiwan has been such a great example of how to deal with the coronavirus, and they've used a mixture of smart tracing, mask wearing and frankly, calm, to help fight the virus." 

Some observers have argued that Asian governments had it easier because people in these cultures are supposedly more obedient. Foreign Minister Wu laughed at that suggestion.

"Not at all. Taiwan is a democracy," he said. "Taiwan's opposition is also very critical of the government… But when it comes to public health, when the command center has educated the people enough, they understand what is best for them."

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