On Taiwan during the Pandemic – And What Our Profession Can Learn

By Peter Lee, Class of 2022

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have written, edited, deleted, then re-written about this topic more times than I would like to admit. This year has been challenging on many fronts, especially on the topic of justice. Through it all, I have asked my community for a lot, and now I ask for more. This blog post might ruffle some feathers – good. I want to talk about the harmful effects of politics during a global health crisis; to do so, I have to talk about the country I emigrated from. 

Taiwan, the island nation closest to the origin of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, is home to nearly 24 million residents. It has been a shining example of health care excellence throughout the pandemic. The government trusted its best scientists, it was transparent with information, the citizens were responsible, and success was found with cross-industry collaborations. Rapid tests and digital contact tracing have led to Taiwan having a rare economic growth during a pandemic. Today, life goes on as usual in Taiwan with no lockdown, no economic downfall, no coronavirus. 

Since the beginning of this pandemic, there have been 618 cases recorded in Taiwan, with 7 total deaths from the virus that has killed more than 1.39 million people globally. As I write this blog, Taiwan has gone 224 days without a single locally transmitted case of COVID. The Taiwan model has been followed by nations such as New Zealand to successfully control outbreaks. Despite its miniscule stature in the international community, Taiwan, a nation ⅛ the size of Colorado, has donated hundreds of millions of masks to disease stricken countries like the United States, Canada, Iraq, Eswatini. The list goes on; in fact, Taiwan has donated PPE to nations on every continent, including sovereign native nations in the US that have largely been ignored by our government. 

“Taiwan has been a shining example of healthcare excellence throughout the pandemic. “

So far this sounds like a success story, but unfortunately, Taiwan did not have an easy path to success with the coronavirus. The island nation’s close proximity to Wuhan ensured that it had one of the highest risks for an uncontrolled outbreak. Moreover, the WHO excluded Taiwan from receiving important data regarding the pandemic during its beginning stages. The “World” Health Organization put 24 million Taiwanese lives at risk with its refusal to include Taiwan in its organization and communication. It continues to censor the word Taiwan from its interviews and even has blocked users from commenting the word Taiwan on their livestreams. They REALLY went through the effort of censoring out the word Taiwan in every language. Just this week, Taiwan was kept out of the WHA (World Health Assembly) despite support from the United States, Japan, New Zealand and many others. The nation with one of the best pandemic response models, the nation that continues to allies around the world with their respective battles against this deadly disease, the only nation that has seen gross GDP growth in 2020, was excluded from the single most important global health meeting about… the pandemic… Why? 

If you ask Google why Taiwan is not a part of the WHO, you might find explanations claiming that China and Taiwan have “internal” exchanges of information regarding the pandemic. You might even encounter Chinese propaganda claiming that Taiwan is a runaway province of the People’s Republic of China without claims to sovereignty. Some of you reading this might even think the economic benefits China provides is sufficient to ignore its human rights violations. I will be the first one to tell you about Taiwan’s complicated history with colonization efforts from the likes of Portugal, Spain, and Japan. But let’s set the record straight: Taiwan has never been a part of China, nor will it ever be. Pandemic response is not the only thing separating Taiwan from its communist neighbors across the strait. It also boasts a vibrant democracy that celebrates freedoms of speech, religion, and press. Taiwan has Asia’s only female head of state, Dr. Tsai Ing Wen. It is the first nation in Asia to guarantee equal marriage rights and it is not currently committing genocide by putting ethnic Muslims in “re-education” camps. I know, the bar is on the floor. 

The most dangerous aspect of allowing politics to interfere with global health initiatives is that it affects more than the nations being oppressed. Taiwan is lucky, it has a combination of technology, community support, and one of the world’s best universal healthcare systems; but Taiwan is not the only nation under intimidation by global powerhouses. Somiland in East Africa is another prime example of the dangerous effects of using pandemic response as a political pawn. In the beginning stages of this pandemic, Taiwan shared important findings about the mechanism of transmission of COVID, that information was withheld from communication by the WHO. While citizens in Taiwan all wore masks to protect themselves, major western nations still believed face coverings to be an ineffective way to curb the Coronavirus. Of course, they cited the WHO. 

As Rev. Martin Luther King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Right now, people who might not know about Taiwan or its struggles on the international stage are suffering from the fact that the Chinese Communist Party, along with the WHO, continue to make a habit of playing politics with Taiwanese lives. How many of the 1.39 million people who have lost their lives  this pandemic would still be around this holiday season if nations were given accurate information? How many more can be saved if Taiwan was allowed to participate in the WHA to share its knowledge and resources? In order to provide true patient-centered care and create policy that centers around the care of populations, the WHO has to be held accountable.  

“Change starts with Doctors of Physical Therapy who hold space for and validate, patient experiences, even when it is uncomfortable. “

The purpose of this blog is not to say that we all have to care about every injustice around the world, I don’t think we have the capacity to handle such tremendous amounts of trauma. Instead, I hope it serves as a reminder that ignorance is not bliss. Just because we are not aware of the oppression that someone else is facing, does not mean the repercussions of that oppression will not affect us personally. I hope this serves as a reminder to always seek to learn more from one another. The very nature of our profession calls us to advocate on behalf of our patients, in order to do that, we cannot choose to remain ignorant to the world around us, in some instances, we cannot remain apolitical. This was an example on a global scale, but injustices like this happen at every level of health care. It is my hope that this blog inspires you to research Chinese oppression in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Mongolia, or Xin Jiang. Or read into the roles PTs can play in the violence happening in Armenia by the hands of Azerbaijan and Turkey. We can’t solve every injustice, but we can always do more (Magis, nice). Change starts with Doctors of Physical Therapy who hold space for and validate, patient experiences, even when it is uncomfortable. 

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