Global City

Why I flew home to Taiwan at the height of the pandemic

I was homesick, but wanted to see how the country kept its death toll so low.

“Hey, what do you think? Is it too much?” I asked. “Hah,” scoffed my roommate, seeing my oversized coverall isolation gown, two masks, a face shield and gloves. “Well, I mean, you don’t need to care what others think. You’re just protecting yourself.”

Before I left my apartment in October 2020 for Los Angeles International Airport, my parents called me twice from Taiwan to make sure that I was prepared to travel. They repeatedly reminded me to avoid crowds, taking off my masks and, if possible, eating anything or using the bathroom during the flight. I reassured them that I would take extra precautions.

“I even wore a diaper just in case I cannot hold my pee!” I told them.

When I complained about how awkward I felt and that I looked like the Michelin Man, my parents, again, read through an article that outlined precautions to take when flying.

Travel during the COVID-19 pandemic was risky, but my reasons were simple: I missed home and knew that I would feel safe in Taiwan. I was ready for that experience and couldn’t wait to talk with local health officials to learn more about Taiwan’s successful efforts to control COVID-19. Because while most countries struggled to contain the virus, Taiwan instituted measures credited with keeping its death toll at 12, among the lowest in the world.

On October 22, 2020, LAX was quiet and empty. Before checking in my luggage, the ground staff of EVA Air asked me to do an online health declaration. Filling in my health status and travel history was a mandatory procedure for everyone who wanted to enter Taiwan.

Even though the airport was empty and I was wrapped in airtight protective clothing, I was still paranoid and kept reapplying hand sanitizer. During the 14-hour flight, flight attendants asked me several times if I wanted to eat anything. “No thanks,” was my only response.

My heart pounded with excitement when the airplane finally landed. Airline staff waited at the gate to check my health declaration form. I was also asked to use a Taiwanese SIM card to allow the government to track my location during the 14-day quarantine.

After claiming my luggage, I lined up for the “epidemic-prevention taxi” in the arriving hall because incoming foreign travelers were prohibited from taking public transportation. Inbound passengers could only be picked up by their family members or choose to use the airport taxi service to reduce the potential for infecting others.

The taxi driver sprayed alcohol over me, my luggage and even my shoe soles before letting me get into the car for the four-hour drive from Taoyuan International Airport to my quarantine site, my uncle’s house. My uncle and his family live in Texas but own an apartment in Kaohsiung City, which became my temporary residence. I did not have to go to a quarantine hotel as I met the one person per residence requirement.

I opened the door and sat on the floor, feeling relieved. From LAX to my quarantine stay, it was a 23-hour trip. I could finally take off my masks, take a deep breath, eat and use the bathroom. I was exhausted but also excited to have safely arrived. Then, the 14-day home isolation began.

Soon after, I received a care package filled with snacks, masks, a bottle of bleach and a thermometer from local city officials. During the quarantine, I reported my health condition through daily follow-up calls and the text and my location was always traced. Contact tracing is one of Taiwan’s main strategies in controlling COVID-19. The Taiwanese government collaborated with telecom companies to launch an electronic security monitoring system to identify each person’s location by detecting mobile phone signals connecting to the cell tower.

Once the system detects that an individual leaves a designated quarantine site, an official will receive a notification and immediately confirm their location with a police officer. Those who violate the regulations are fined or forcibly placed in quarantine sites with heavy oversight.

In addition, the community surveillance system, which began in early 2020, along with monitoring mobile phone signals, are the backbone of Taiwan’s contact tracing program. Police officers can easily find people who have been in contact with someone with a confirmed COVID-19 case and order them to stay at home for self-health monitoring for two weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook the world with most countries caught unprepared. Many countries failed to initially take the pandemic seriously and had inconsistent public health messaging, causing the virus to spread uncontrolled. But according to Nina Yamanis, a public health expert who specializes in health behavior related to infectious diseases, clear and consistent health messaging is critical to limiting COVID-19 deaths.

Taiwan was well prepared and responded to the COVID-19 pandemic quickly due to its painful SARS experience. In 2003, SARS, a respiratory illness, had affected more than 8,000 people worldwide and caused 774 deaths. This contagious and potentially fatal disease specifically hit hard in Asia, and Taiwan had one of the highest mortality rates, with 346 confirmed cases and 73 deaths.

At the time, the Taiwanese government was not prepared to tackle the situation and imposed a lockdown on the Taipei City Hospital Heping Branch. More than 1,000 frontline workers, staff, patients and their family members were stuck and clustered in the hospital without proper separation; 154 people were infected and 31 people, including seven staff, died.

“We really learned the lessons from SARS,” said Kao-Pin Hwang, commander of Communicable Disease Control Medical Network. He said that after SARS ended, Taiwan immediately amended Communicable Disease Control Acts and gathered experts to build a much stronger network for defeating infectious diseases in the future.

“That was why when the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic began in China in 2019, we were able to set up the Central Epidemic Command Center and respond to the pandemic really quickly,” Hwang said.

He added that in early 2020, many experts claimed that Taiwan would be seriously affected by COVID-19 due to its proximity and links to China, but Taiwan proved itself to be successful in handling the pandemic.

“We’ve been well-prepared, come up with good strategies and taken immediate actions, so we are able to keep the number of confirmed cases low,” Hwang said.

Hwang also emphasized the fact that the Minister of Economic Affairs immediately grouped a “national mask team” and led several factories to speed up the production of face masks right after the outbreak of COVID-19, so Taiwan didn’t need to rely on masks and protective clothing imported from other countries.

“I also feel proud that Taiwanese know the importance of wearing masks and are willing to follow the mask mandate,” Hwang said. He believes that the cooperation between the government and the public has contributed to the huge success in battling COVID-19.

Under policies established by Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), it’s mandatory for COVID-19 patients, including foreign travelers who have COVID-19, to live in the negative pressure isolation room for medical treatments. After SARS, Taiwan designated specific wards to keep patients with infectious disease from others.

According to CECC, there are currently 134 response and isolation hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients who have mild symptoms, and 52 regional hospitals or medical centers for the treatment of severe cases. There are a total of 1,100 negative pressure isolation rooms. As of May 3, 2021, 87 people are being treated in these isolation facilities.

Last February, Rita Chao, a student studying in Barcelona, began to develop symptoms like coughing, fever, and a stuffy nose, which eventually led to the loss of smell and taste. Within a month, she went to local Spanish hospitals twice but did not get proper treatment and was diagnosed with a flu both times.

However, when she came back to Taiwan, she immediately tested positive for COVID-19 and was sent to the Tri-Service General Hospital.

Just like Chao, Kai Lo was a patient at the Taipei City Hospital — Heping Branch. She went to New York in February last year to pursue fashion, but when COVID-19 arrived in the United States, she came back to Taiwan in March and tested positive at the airport.

“Everyone was calling me and it was really chaotic,” Lo said. She said after she tested positive, firefighters, epidemic prevention personnel and police officers all contacted her and 30 minutes later, she was already at the hospital.

Lo said she was not sure how to react.

“We didn’t have too many cases at the time, so I never expected I would test positive,” Lo said. I was shocked. I was curious about what will happen next.”

Fear, anxiety, frustration and sadness were common emotions Chao and Lo both said they experienced when they were in the hospital. However, they were also impressed by Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic and the efforts frontline workers put in to take care of patients. When Chao and Lo lived in the hospital, they both had emotional breakdowns; they felt lonely and anxious and knew that they needed to stay in the wards longer than they expected. However, Chao and Lo also said doctors and nurses showed empathy and supported them.

“I was touched, especially when they were the only people I can see at the time,” Lo said.

After Chao and Lo tested negative for COVID-19 three times in a row, a requirement mandated by the government to ensure patients are fully recovered and not able to infect others, they were finally discharged from the hospital.

Even though the quarantine regulations are strict in Taiwan, these regulations have helped Taiwan become one of the safest countries during this global crisis. The average confirmed case count is five per 100,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University. As a result, not only are Taiwanese individuals all around the world trying to travel home, but many foreigners want to stay or travel to the country.

In November 2020, Hugo Flamigni traveled to Taiwan from France on a working holiday visa and planned to stay for six months.

“In Taiwan, you can see that life is almost as it was before the pandemic,” Flamigni said. His pandemic experiences in France and in Taiwan have been very different. “People in France are just super depressed and super desperate because they don’t know when it’s going to end. I think it’s because there is not a strong solution from the government.”

Flamigni pointed out that inconsistent announcements from the French government have confused people and contributed to France’s high numbers of confirmed cases — more than 5,500,000. He also mentioned that even when the first lockdown was imposed, they were still allowed to go jogging because the official said exercising is essential.

“When you’re going jogging, you sweat a lot, you breathe a lot, you spit,” Flamigni said. “I think it tells a lot about how bad the government handled it and how bad the people adapted to the situation.”

Flamigni also believes Taiwan has had better control over the pandemic due to cultural differences.

“I feel that in Taiwan, you try to prevent disease, whereas, in France and the U.S., you treat the symptoms once you have the disease. You wait for things coming to be treated,” said Flamigni. He said the Taiwanese took precautions not just because they want to protect themselves but also because they protect others.

“I think in Taiwan, it’s not about capitalism or communism. It’s collectivism,” Flamigni said.

From my experience, Taiwan’s collective safety efforts were clear.

Now, I’m back in Los Angeles. I returned in March because I’ll be graduating this semester and I hope that participating in commencement ceremonies can give me a sense of closure and accomplishment after a year of virtual classes. But the state of the pandemic is different than in Taiwan. I am still recalling the carefree days at home, when I could exercise in the gym, go to movie theaters, hang out with my friends, grab a cup of coffee in a cafe and not worry as much about the pandemic.

Those simple pleasures were luxuries.