Inside Taiwan during COVID-19: How the country kept schools and businesses open throughout pandemic

Taiwan and Canada had their first cases of coronavirus at about the same time, but their experiences have been different. Taiwanese children are still in school, and there's no shortage of supplies.

Taiwan acted early to make sure there were supplies of masks, sanitizer

How Taiwan is beating COVID-19. Can Canada do the same?

4 years ago
Duration 5:42
Featured VideoBoth Taiwan and Canada reported their first presumptive cases of COVID-19 within days of each other, but their experience of life with the pandemic has been quite different. Children in Taiwan are still in school, restaurants are open and there’s no shortage of protective supplies. Watch what Canada can learn from Taiwan's approach to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

It's almost life as usual for the Lin family of Taiwan during the coronavirus pandemic — with a few noticeable exceptions.

"We didn't worry too much," said Leeli Chang, who lives with her husband, Terry Lin, and her daughter, Peggy, 8, in a suburb of Taipei.

The family, like many in Taiwan, has continued to go to work, to school and out shopping as normal since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but now with some precautions in place — such as regular temperature checks and hand sanitizer dispensers outside most public buildings and protective masks.

Taiwan was hit hard by the SARS pandemic in 2003, but this time, the government took swift and early actions when it first became aware of an unknown pneumonia in Wuhan, China.

By mid-February, the territory had increased its mask and alcoholic sanitizer production, introduced fines for raising the price of medical supplies and set cleaning standards for public transportation and other areas, such as trains and schools.

Taiwanese children eat their lunch at school. They only take their masks off when the dividers are up to prevent infection. (Joyce Huang)

Both Canada and Taiwan reported their first presumptive cases of coronavirus within days of each other in January, but by March, they had diverged sharply in the number of infections reported.

As of March 21, there were only 153 confirmed cases and two deaths in Taiwan, an island with 23 million people that's only slightly bigger than Vancouver Island. That's far fewer than Canada's more than 1,000 confirmed cases and 12 deaths.

It's shaping up to be a different experience for families in Taiwan compared to their Canadian counterparts.

"I think that every time we watch the news, it gives us the confidence, like, 'You don't need to worry too much,'" said Chang when asked about whether she and her family are concerned about the virus.

Leeli Chang with her daughter, Peggy Lin and husband, Terry Lin. (CBC)

In Canada, one family is trying to keep fears at bay.

"We're really working hard to keep that out of the home." said Louise Gleeson, when asked a similar question about her family's level of anxiety over the virus.

"As a parent, I'm really trying to stay grounded, because if I let myself go too far ahead in my thinking, I do feel the anxiety creep up."

Gleeson lives with her husband and four children, ages 9, 13, 15 and 17, in Oakville, Ont.

How to keep kids safe in school during the pandemic

The school situations in Taiwan and Canada have been very different. After an additional two weeks off during winter break, schools reopened in Taiwan.

But every morning, Chang says she and her husband take their daughter's temperature and report it to her school before she goes. Their daughter, like all the kids, wears a mask all day — except at lunch. At lunch, when she takes off her mask, she is protected from infection by a plastic barrier that sits atop her desk and helps separate her from other students.

 "We have protective barriers for everyone," said Chang, "During mealtime, they take it out to eat their lunch."

'The videos of the empty shelves, they can really just get you going and get you panicked,' said Louise Gleeson, left. She and her family live in Oakville, Ont. (Louise Gleeson)

Chang says her daughter's school was one of the first in Taipei to introduce the dividers. "The school also teaches them how to wash their hands, every day." said Chang.

Those measures have been in place since February, well before Canadian provinces closed schools.

In Canada, kids are home from school across the country. Ontario extended its March break by two weeks, and the governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and British Columbia have cancelled classes indefinitely.

That means finding a way to keep the children busy. For Gleeson, assigning her kids one chore a day has helped. She has them reorganizing kitchen cupboards, washing and vacuuming out the cars, and going through old piles of toys and books, choosing which ones to donate when this is all over.

Once the chores are done, everyone can have some fun. "We're staying up far too late watching movies," she said.

Gleeson said she feels fortunate that they have the tools they need for at-home learning, when the time comes, but hopes schools aren't closed for long.

"Having four children at various grade levels makes the school closures very daunting," she said. "I would be so glad if our students and educators could end the school year in their classrooms, but I'm not pinning my hopes on it."

Panic buying of hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies

Canadians across the country have seen surges in panic buying of masks, alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer. It has some people questioning supply chains

Luckily for the Gleeson family, they stocked up on everything they needed several weeks ago.

"When you have four kids in a span of seven years, which I [did], you know how to be organized." she said. "So, I was stockpiled and ready to go two, three weeks ago."

But while Gleeson is prepared, she worries about her elderly neighbours who may not have had the means to plan so far ahead.

"I'm not feeling any panic as far as supplies and food goes at my home, but I am feeling the panic of people out in the community and worrying about that," she said.

Any Canadian who's tried to buy hand sanitizer — food and toilet paper, for that matter — in the last week knows that many pharmacies and grocery store shelves have been picked clean for a while now.

To help prevent people from hoarding supplies, the Taiwanese government announced jail sentences of up to seven years and fines of up to the equivalent of $200,000 Cdn for individuals or businesses who try to profit by raising prices on disease-prevention products, such as hand sanitizer.

"Initially, when people began to be aware [of the virus], there was a shortage. It was difficult buying them," said Dr. Mei-shang Ho, a virologist and epidemiologist from Taiwan.

According to the Taipei Times, in mid-February, when alcohol-based sanitizers were running low across the territory, the government instructed two state-run manufacturers to increase their production to meet demand. Stores selling the bottles have limited the amount people can buy to one per person.

Peggy Lin practices hand washing at her school. In Taiwan, schools opened after taking an additional two-week break during winter holidays, unlike in Canada where many provinces have cancelled schools indefinitely. (Joyce Huang)

In Taiwan, most public buildings, such as schools, train stations, restaurants and apartment buildings, have automatic hand sanitizing dispensers outside, with signs urging people to disinfect their hands before entering.

"We try to deliver to those places that are needed, for example, schools or key government offices, to make sure that places that need it have sanitizers," said Jaushieh Joseph Wu, Taiwan's minister of foreign affairs.

It's a stark contrast to Canada, where pharmacies across the country are out of stock. Alcohol disinfectants aren't the only cleaning supplies in high demand in Canada right now. Many stores across the country are sold out of things like disinfectant wipes and soap. 

According to Chang, Taiwan has rationed the amount of cleaning supplies people can buy.

"Our government said you can buy one — only one — that you can use at home. I don't think it's a problem for us." she said.

"But you just need to go there and line up for a long time."

She joked that she sends her husband, Terry Lin, to stand in line.

Taiwan has face masks

"Taiwan had the foresight to create a large stockpile of face masks; other countries or regions might now consider this as part of future pandemic plans," said Dr Benjamin Cowling, a professor at the school of public health at the University of Hong Kong.

Taiwanese workers have screens so they can eat in isolation. (CBC)

The Taiwanese government took over production of surgical masks early on, banning exportation and eventually bringing in soldiers to help with increased production. It allocated certain amounts to retailers and lowered prices to the equivalent of about 24 cents Cdn.

"Right now, we still need to go to the pharmacy to buy masks," said Chang. "We take a kind of ticket, a numbered ticket, and they tell you what time you pick up the masks."

In early February, the government announced a mask rationing system where everyone gets a certain number of masks per week. That number per person was bumped up in early March to three per adult per week, and five per child under 13 per week. People can pick up their masks on designated days of the week, depending on their health card number.

In Canada, a shortage of masks had health care professionals sounding the alarm weeks ago. Now, some hospitals are keeping a closer eye on medical supplies, such as masks, because equipment has gone missing.

This sign in a 7/11 store in Taiwan notes that these alcohol bottles are limited to one per person. (Rowlin Huang)

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the government would help businesses that already make medical supplies to increase their capacity and help other manufacturers buy equipment so they can make needed supplies such as masks, ventilators and hand sanitizers.

Critics say measures like this could take months to implement, and it's not yet clear if these supplies will be for consumers or health care professionals.

Dining during the pandemic

In Taiwan, restaurants are open for business, and the Lin family is still able to indulge in a night out occasionally.

But for the Gleeson family, those days are over — indefinitely. On March 17, the Ontario government called on all restaurants and bars to stop serving customers food and drink inside their establishments and to offer instead only takeout and delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All nightclubs, movie theatres and concert venues were also urged to close temporarily to help stop the spread of the virus.

'I really feel like we dropped the ball'

In addition to regular public service announcements broadcast and available on the internet, the Taiwanese government is also cracking down on false information. People found to be spreading fake news about the pandemic could be fined up to the equivalent of about $142,000 Cdn. 

"What we have done is working," said Wu. "Taiwan's experience is a successful one." 

Taiwan's foreign affairs minister, Joseph Wu, shown in Taipei last November, said if Canada adopts a 'whole-government approach' similar to Taiwan's when tackling COVID-19, it may fare better than some European countries. (Fabian Hamacher/Reuters)

Taiwan still has relatively few COVID-19 cases compared to Canada and, according to Dr. Ho, that's because of its fast response.

"There's no magic to it," she said. "It's just isolation and quarantining. I think epidemic control is like a race to see who gets the upper hand: the people or the virus."

She says in Taiwan's case, they started that race a lot earlier than countries like Canada.

Gleeson also doesn't feel Canada has acted fast enough.

"I really feel like we dropped the ball," she said. "It's done, but it's disappointing, and I hope we can learn some really big lessons from how other places handled this and how we did not."

Dr. Ho agrees.

"I think it's too late to talk about, you know, what we've done," she said when asked what actions Canada should adopt from Taiwan.

"But yes, you still have to quarantine, you still have to isolate your patients, etc.," she said. "But, you know, across the whole environment, people's perception, it's not going to be the same. Here, we are at ease, but there, people are anxious."

Wu thinks it's not too late to change Canada's approach. "For Canada, the cases are still few, so if the Canadian government takes the whole-government approach like Taiwan... then I think the Canadian government might come out less affected than those countries in Europe or even in the United States, " he said.

With files by Jenny Cowley