Taiwan, Transparency, COVID-19

Taiwan is just as affected and at high risk of the COVID-19 pandemic as everybody else because of China’s initial cover-up and mis-handling in Wuhan, the outbreak epicenter.  However, Taiwan’s transparency and free flow of information show that they are the best weapon against the pandemic.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

Because of its proximity to China, regular flights and vast number of citizens working and living there, Taiwan is expected to have one of the highest numbers of infection.  However, this is not the case.  Instead, Taiwan has won global recognition for its transparency, fast response and efficacy at controlling the spread of COVID-19 thus far.  This is even more laudable given the fact that Taiwan is excluded from the World Health Organization (WHO) because of China’s political pressure.

Taiwan has demonstrated that a better way to contain the outbreak is a free flow of information to make it easier and more convenient for citizens to take the relevant measures.  With transparent, timely, accurate and sufficient information, Taiwanese are able to actively follow the government’s instructions to curb the contagion.

In a NBC News report, Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he believes that Taiwan has done an exceptional job responding to the crisis and that if it had been a member of the WHO, “we would have learned at least two weeks earlier of the threat we were facing.

“In addition, we would have learned at least six weeks earlier that the outbreak could be successfully suppressed and how to do so.  The experience of the last three months shows that exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO decreases the effectiveness of the WHO and increases risks to the world.”

China is rolling out a propaganda campaign

On the other hand, the Chinese government has tackled the crisis by using multiple measures to contain the spread of the virus as well as information about the outbreak.  Besides the physical measures like lockdown and quarantine, officials have also engaged in propaganda and cover-up like falsely claiming there was no evidence of human to human transmission, muzzling whistleblowers like Dr Li Wenliang and hiding the true extent of casualties.  

The authorities are also censoring discussion of the pandemic in the realm of social media, and propagating a new storyline of great leadership from Beijing in firstly saving China, and now, the rest of the world.  

In a further clampdown on transparency and to control the narrative, CNN reported that China has imposed restrictions on the publication of academic research on the origins of COVID-19, according to a central government directive and online notices published by two Chinese universities.  Under the new policy, all academic papers on Covid-19 will be subjected to extra vetting and must be approved by central government officials before being submitted for publication. 

According to a Bloomberg report, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has publicly urged China to be transparent about the outbreak.  He has repeatedly accused China of covering up the extent of the problem and being slow to share information, especially in the weeks after the virus first emerged.  He said the data is important for the development of medical therapies and public health measures to combat the virus.

Also, in a New York Times report, the CIA warned that China has vastly understated its coronavirus infections and that its count could not be relied upon as the US compiles predictive models to fight the virus.  Bureaucratic mis-reporting is a chronic problem in China but it has grown worse as the Communist leadership has taken a more authoritarian turn in recent years under President Xi Jinping.  China is increasingly stepping up propaganda and strengthening media and online controls, and its primary goal is to maintain regime stability and social control, not to contain the virus outbreak.

Obtaining a more accurate count of the Chinese rate of infection and deaths has worldwide public health implications at a time of grave uncertainty about the virus’ speed of transmission and other fundamental questions like effectiveness of social distancing.  Now, more than ever, governments worldwide can certainly do with a set of reliable data as a basis to plan and implement responsive health measures to fight the spread of COVID-19.

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