Sunday, November 21, 2021

Taiwan’s COVID response: let’s stop assuming “imperfect” is the same as “terrible”

Just a warning: I wrote this after an extremely busy work week and after taking the anxiety meds that help me sleep. If that shows in the writing style or other weirdnesses, I’ll go back and improve on the post later.

“This is probably going to be my last year in Taiwan,” someone told me recently. This was partly for personal reasons, but partly because “I’m just not very happy with Taiwan’s COVID response.” Not enough vaccines, not rolling them out fast enough, the interminable quarantine — they simply weren’t impressed. 

“It’s really shocking how the government hasn’t made any effort to import more vaccines,” said another friend, though they admitted that view mostly came from their parents and the pan-blue news they watched. 

Still other friends are upset about the lack of information about what quarantine rules apply to foreigners — do we get subsidies? Do we qualify for the 7+7 program? Is it legal to charge foreign residents more than citizens for quarantine? There’s also a lack of consideration for foreign residents who want to reunite with family members, and extremely unclear guidelines regarding how to sign up for first or second shots.

I don’t agree with the negativity of most of these takes, but they’ve come from people I respect. They pushed me to think about the ways we all decide what evidence we choose to consider when forming an opinion, especially if you’re looking to justify what you’ve already decided you want to believe. Nobody is safe from confirmation bias.

My own perspective: Taiwan’s COVID response remains fantastic, and the evidence for this is simple. It’s one of the only COVID-free countries in the world. As far as I know, the only one with a comparable population and density. Despite considerable odds — Beijing’s attempts to block vaccines from reaching Taiwan, exclusion from the WHO and proximity and connectedness with China — Taiwan has crushed each COVID surge. What other country went from an extensive outbreak to zero COVID in 7 months, without (in my view) unduly impinging on guaranteed rights and freedoms. The vaccine rollout indeed began slowly, but it’s scaled up impressively since. I meet very few Taiwanese anti-vaxxers or anti-maskers: the vast majority of those jackasses seem to be foreign residents -- with some exceptions, of course.

(If you are one of those, I want nothing to do with you. I am not interested in your “opinion.”)

I empathize with the frustration, however. I support keeping the mandatory quarantine as long as experts deem it necessary, but the fact is, it’s made it impossible for us to visit family. At the same time, I’ve watched those family members travel while I am effectively stuck in Taiwan. I don’t miss leisure travel as much as I thought I would, but I do miss my family. I accepted that I’d miss Christmas 2020 and two weddings — the last family wedding before these two was my own 11 years ago, so they mattered to me — but I never imagined I’d have to give up Christmas 2021, too. 

Of any country to get stuck in, however, I am indeed grateful that it is Taiwan, with its zero domestic cases.

I watch friends and family in the US getting boosters, while my friends in Taiwan are still getting their second shots. I wonder how long it will be before I can get an mRNA booster, especially as both of my doses are AZ. I’m grateful that I was able to get the vaccine at all, but that booster? It’ll probably be awhile. Until then, international travel is indeed a bit more dangerous for me.

Even dismissing the exaggerations and truth-twisting of Taiwanese TV news (especially pan-blue news), it’s easy to see COVID-era Taiwan two ways: 

The half-empty glass: the delay in ordering vaccines caused the delays in receiving them. The quarantine is keeping Taiwan closed off while the rest of the world opens. The vaccines many of us were able to get aren’t the best, and aren’t necessarily going to make it easier to travel in the future. Guidelines have been vague and unclear, and foreign residents have been ignored entirely, treated as though we don’t exist. The government grew complacent in learning about the latest treatments and approaches because the country was COVID-free for so long, which led to higher mortality when an outbreak did occur. A surprising number of pilots (though still a tiny minority) didn’t follow the quarantine rules tailor-made for them. Businesses, especially those which typically served tourists, have closed. Taiwan is being left behind, and it’s starting to show.

The half-full glass: dude. We’re living in a COVID-free country. How many people can say that? How can you say a response that resulted in zero COVID isn’t working or isn’t impressive? This is despite having to fight just to be recognized on the international stage. Nobody has turned the wisdom of masking or vaccinating into a major political battle, even when they criticize the government. Taiwanese are masking and vaccinating and that’s more than you can say for a lot of belligerent ultracrepidarians in the US.

Perhaps the government could have jumped on orders faster, but the fact is that Beijing’s attempted (and somewhat successful) sabotage was real, and is not Taiwan’s fault. There have been outbreaks, and we’ve crushed them. There has been confusion and poor communication, and certainly missteps as well. What country can’t say that though? What government has handled the pandemic perfectly? What government has handled it better than Taiwan’s? The only real contender is New Zealand, and I’m not even sure that case is strong. We’ve all made sacrifices, and compared to what people in other countries have lived through, they’re mostly bearable (my heart goes out to anyone still waiting to bring a spouse to Taiwan with no timeline as to when it might be possible. That’s cruel.) 

My family in the US spent upwards of a year mostly locked indoors, away from others. I’m (de facto) being asked to wait about a year longer than I’d like to make that long-desired trip to see my family.

At the end of the day, however, we are living in a COVID-free country. What more do you really need in your glass?

To come to that more positive outlook, I pushed myself to think through the glass-half-empty view of Taiwan’s COVID response. Indeed, I found a lot to criticize: their views didn’t entirely lack logic or a point. Every day I don’t book a plane ticket to the US, that becomes clear. Every day I wonder when I’ll be able to get better protection than AZ for the Delta variant, I get it. 

The lesson: every country has made mistakes. Some more than others — the US’s strategy seemed to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, followed by a pretty decent effort, followed by a bunch of bellicose Dr. YouTube graduates who act like they’ve swallowed not-smart drugs ruining everything. No mistake Taiwan has made was worse than that of any other government, let alone so much worse that they deserve to be singled out for a poor response.

I’ve noticed a tendency of some — especially foreigners in Taiwan who’ve had a rough day — to assume every good strategy is simply obvious and doesn’t merit any praise for the Taiwanese COVID response, but every bad strategy is an indictment of the country.

That is, if it’s not absolutely perfect, they say it’s terrible. And they call it terrible with a level of dismissiveness and frankly condescension that they would most likely not aim at any other countries. COVID cases are surging in Europe, but do you see them going after that? No — Taiwan is a disaster to them because a few mistakes were made, but Europe? “Oh that’s worrisome”. That’s it. Oh, in Rotterdam they’re rioting against masks — that’s fine. But a pilot didn’t follow the rules in Taiwan? The problem must be the rules, not the individual pilot!

This leads to polarized viewpoints where Taiwan’s excellent-but-imperfect response is viewed as either unassailably amazing, or unforgivably terrible. 

The “unassailably amazing” people are in fact willing to be assailed, if you offer good evidence. 

The “anything less than a perfect response is a disaster!” people— a standard they would be unlikely to apply to any other country — are harder to reach. It’s hard to change someone’s mind if they want to dwell in negativity.

Fortunately, the middle ground is not devoid of people. There are also reasonable voices who posit that a generally excellent response was marred by a few missteps, but that the bad odds Taiwan has faced thanks to China merit quite a bit of grace towards Taiwan. Some of those missteps, however, do need to be addressed. 

This would best describe my viewpoint. But I had to come to it from an excessively positive one, genuinely consider the negative takes and incorporate what made sense while sloughing off everything that didn’t make sense when compared against the bigger picture (that is, the response of the rest of the world). 

If I can beg everyone reading this to one thing, it’s this: reconsider. Go through your baseline opinion on Taiwan’s COVID response and examine each of your assumptions, beliefs and areas of especially strong pride, anger or defensiveness. By all means, ignore the anti-science junk which is truly not worth your time.

Then, check them against your previous opinion. If this process causes your bright & sunny views to moderate a bit, then that’s a new level of nuance. It doesn’t mean your overall perspective is not a positive one.

If it causes you to question your previous negativity, great. 

If not, that’s your right, but we’re not going to agree. 

Perhaps consider that process for any opinion. Are you dumping on Taiwan because it doesn’t meet impossible standards of perfection that you wouldn’t apply to your home country? Stop, maybe. 

Are you looking at Taiwan through rose-colored glasses that you haven’t tried to remove? Your issue is the less severe one, but there might still be something to be learned here. 


Blogreader said...

I started following you on Twitter because I wanted to learn writing from you. I have read many of your blog posts and took a liking to the way you write. I was wondering if I could reach out to you in any other way other than this comment section. I left a comment some time ago asking the same question only to be told to reach out to you on Facebook, which I don't have. I wonder if you could share an email address I can write to? Thanks.

Jenna Cody said...

I see. I don't give out my personal email so publicly because not every person is, well, a good or kind person. As a woman on the Internet, I have to watch out for that. But, on my Facebook page I do have jennalynk (at) yahoo (dot) com listed (it's a secondary email which I can check) so you can use that. I am pretty sure my DMs are open on Twitter though I've been trying to stay away from Twitter these days (bit of a hellhole).