Coronavirus Denial, Taiwan Gets It!

Five stages of epidemic control show how a society like Taiwan survives this viral outbreak. Others must do the same.

By burying their heads in the sand, Beijing and the local government failed. They compounded that mistake through censorship and evading the truth. Authorities tried to rectify their initial mistakes with draconian measures, including shutting down the entire city of Wuhan.

China isn’t alone in struggling to adapt to this disaster. Countries around the world — from Iran and Italy, to South Korea and Japan and the U.S. — are going through elements of the same cycle.

First, there has been internal denial:

Authorities or populations don’t believe it’s real, despite what they’re told by people who know better.

The next step is external denial:

Under authoritarian regimes, this comes in the form of censorship. In open societies, it’s attacks on message-bearers, including media and experts. In some places, it’s a mix of both.

Third comes action:

Sometimes over-reaction. Sometimes brutal, desperate or flailing. But eventually the mechanisms of authority get put to work in tackling the outbreak. How successful they are depends on how quickly they got through these first three stages.

Then comes the blame game:

Governments, media, victims, experts and the public all point fingers. In Taiwan during the SARS era, that blame rested firmly on the shoulders of a few health officials.

Then, the fifth and final stage, when people are ready to believe that the worst is over, comes self-congratulation of a job well done.

On Jan. 20 this year, Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control activated its Central Epidemic Command Center to coordinate efforts against the new virus. That was three days before China put Wuhan on lockdown and the first meeting of the WHO’s emergency committee. Significantly, it came before Taiwan had even recorded its first case. The government skipped quickly through the internal and external denial phases. While many Taiwanese were yet to be convinced about the dangers, most trusted that the actions taken, such as temperature checks at buildings and use of masks, were reasonable.

A shortage was alleviated when volunteers, and then the government itself, started collating and publishing locations and inventories of masks so people knew where to shop. The result was caution, rather than panic.


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