The following Post is from a German friend, I had it translated because a lot of what he describes applies to our situation here in most Western countries like Europe and the US as well.
What We Can Learn From Taiwan
Video version Part 1
Video version Part 2
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It lies next to China, but reports only a few people infected with Corona: Why is Taiwan coping with the crisis so much better than the European countries – and almost without coercive measures?
“We Europeans and our damn arrogance,” my sister wrote via WhatsApp the other day. “We could have done it differently.” At the time, she was sitting in her not very big house near Berlin, the two sons did not go to school or daycare, and her husband, like her, made a home office at the dining table. In my home town of Taipei, I watched the daily press conference of the Taiwan Minister of Health, who reported the biggest increase in Covid 19 infections to date in one day – exactly ten.
In total, the number of infected people in Taiwan was 77, in Germany the break of the ten thousand mark was expected for the next day. Both countries had reported their first case within a few days.
What effective crisis management looks like has since been better observed in Taiwan than in Germany: the national crisis center had already started work one day before the first confirmed case. Three days later, the export of face masks was banned. The extension of the New Year holidays, which kept all schools nationwide closed for another two weeks, came into effect when the total number of infected had increased to ten. In Taipei, only a few people got on the subway without a face mask.
If we are honest, we have to admit that such crisis management in Germany would have been desirable, but hardly conceivable. The scope of politics is limited by what the people find acceptable, and none of these measures would have been approved at a comparable time. School closings in Hamburg due to flu in the Bavarian province? One can imagine the outcry.
Taiwan is smaller than Germany, it is more densely populated and closer to China. The memory of the SARS epidemic in 2003 has deeply burned into national memory: the scandalous cover-up of the outbreak by the Chinese authorities, the excruciating uncertainty and the more than 70 deaths that have been reported on the island because the people responsible reacted incorrectly. If commentators now refer to SARS to explain the different responses to the coronavirus in East Asia and Europe, they are certainly correct. But is it the whole explanation?
Disparaging remarks about face masks? This leaves Taiwanese stunned
When the crisis started, I was still visiting Germany and communicating with my Taiwanese friend every day. For them there was no more important and almost no other topic, I occasionally had to play-act and pretend my sympathy. Again and again, she asked me to stock up on face masks that were becoming scarce in Taiwan before I returned, which I reluctantly did – only to find that they were barely available. My hint that experts questioned the usefulness of the masks did not impress them. “I would say that as well if people can’t buy any anyway!”
In Taiwan, the face mask has been part of the national etiquette since SARS. Anyone who has a cold and shows up in public without it is considered ruthless. Even waiters in restaurants and trainers in gyms mask themselves in such cases, which triggers a reflexive discomfort for me, coupled with a subliminally aggressive impulse: ‘if this is really necessary’, I have to ask. Does it have to be that way? On my last visit to Berlin, however, I was sitting in the subway opposite a woman who was coughing violently and caught myself thinking whether she shouldn’t wear a mask. The commuter schizophrenia between cultures.
So now I’m back in Taiwan.
There are countless stories circulating on social media about Taiwanese living abroad who would like to protect themselves and their environment with a face mask, but do not do so for fear of the reaction of their fellow human beings. A friend of my friend, who lives in the Netherlands, only masks in connection with headphones and loud music, so that at least they don’t have to hear the derogatory remarks. Nobody believes that face masks offer complete protection, but firstly, there are limited effective measures available in the current situation, and secondly, it is about a signal to the environment: I am aware of the danger and do my part to protect myself and you.
Taiwanese are stunned that this is being negatively sanctioned by the environment. In fact, no one in Germany is bullied who drinks beer or eats a kebab on the subway, but if someone takes too much care, we get angry. Funny, isn’t it?
In some cases, people may believe that a face mask indicates that the person is infected. Conversely, others may read the assumption from the mask that everyone else is sick and therefore dangerous.
Basically, a masked face evokes threatening associations with bank robbers, terrorists and other criminals – those who mask themselves have something to hide. In the case of Asians, there is also one of the oldest racist prejudices that Western culture knows about them: they are opaque. Asians always hide something, their real face, and if they have bad intentions, they hide them behind a smile.
There is hardly a travelogue from the 19th century that the Chinese do not call ‘cunning’ or ‘wrong’. We Westerners, on the other hand, are always honest and upright, and instead of masking ourselves, we tell each other the truth to our faces. Preferably loudly.
What is “European arrogance”?
When my sister spoke of “European arrogance” – a proverbial phrase in East Asia – she meant even more. It is not only because politics underestimated the danger that massive cuts in public life were only made to us when it was already too late for prevention and the only way to limit the damage. As mentioned above, it was also about anticipating what the population would and would not accept.
In contrast to the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan’s highly effective crisis management manages with surprisingly few bans. For the most part, it is based on recommendations and voluntarily followed rules, which is why effectiveness is primarily due to the discipline of the population that politicians can trust.
Nobody complains when body temperature is measured when entering a hotel or restaurant, which I think is happening across the board. Here we are approaching another relevant stereotype, namely the somehow collectivist orientation of the Asians. Often, this may be due to our inability to distinguish people from this region of the world. Where we do not perceive individuals, but only members of an ethnic group, we do not assume individualism – this is called a circular conclusion. That being said, the stereotype does have something to do with the Confucian DNA, which does not determine the behavior of many East Asian societies, but does shape it. This is not only true in times of the epidemic.
When it rains in Taipei, employees of the transport companies stand with a loud-speaker in front of the entrances to the subway stations and warn of the slippery floor. I would then like to step in front of them and say: “Pack up your loud speaker, we are grown-ups who know very well how to get into a train station without an accident.”
The warning about the wet floor comes to me as an assumption that I am too stupid to conclude from falling raindrops that there is an increased risk of slipping. Paternalism allergy is part of individualism – or is it just an exaggerated self-perception in this case? I assume that I am supposed to need the warning. Taiwanese, on the other hand, register a polite gesture that they appreciate, precisely because it is done without need, only out of friendliness. It has little to do with them personally.
The aggressive impulse in me is just the echo of my own insinuation, not the reaction to theirs.
Being exposed to the unquestioned impulses that elevate me above others – that’s not the worst definition of arrogance.
The current crisis offers many opportunities to question yourself. When I first heard about Corona parties in German cities, I found the behavior puerile, childish and irresponsible, but I could understand something about it. The desire to show the virus the middle-finger. Not participating in the alarmism of others, freeing yourself from debilitating fear and simply continuing to live life as before. If only the virus were human, it would say: I like you that way.
A few days ago, the mobile phone video circulated from a German supermarket on Taiwanese television, and there was a loud dispute over toilet paper. Shaking heads in the evening round table discussion. The fluctuations between nonchalance and panic, between corona parties and hoarding purchases are difficult for local observers. Too striking is the contrast to the patience with which Taiwanese queue in front of pharmacies – often in vain – to pick up the three face masks that everyone is entitled to each week. Nevertheless, the common denominator is obvious: my party, my toilet paper. With us, everyone thinks of themselves during the crisis.
People report to the authorities to report home quarantine
On the eighth day after returning to Taiwan, I get caught: Given the out of control situation in Europe, the government retroactively orders a fortnightly home quarantine for anyone who entered after March 5. Most recently, the numbers had risen sharply due to returning tourists, there are now a total of 100 infected. From a German point of view, these are fantastic figures, here the government and the population saw an equal need for action.
For me this means that I am not allowed to leave my narrow one-room apartment for six days. My first thought: is this checked? Couldn’t I at least go jogging in the evening as before? The individualistic instincts work. A little later my friend sends me a number where I can register as a quarantine case. No excuses! Although thousands must be affected by the regulation, my call is put through immediately. Now I am officially registered and can expect unannounced controls.
The next day an urban worker rings the doorbell. I am given face masks and a form on which I can now record my state of health. The penalties for violations are also listed, because this measure is not a mere recommendation. Anyone who violates the quarantine requirements is guilty according to §58 of the Law on the Control of Communicable Diseases and has to face fines of the equivalent of 3,000 to 30,000 euros. The employee explains that they will call me twice a day and ask about my condition. I nod courteously. I hide the evil intention of jogging when I get cabin-fever behind a smile.
It is later announced that the new measure will affect around 16,000 people. After the announcement, the vast majority contacted the authorities on their own initiative to register their home quarantine. Would that have happened in Germany? In total, around 35,000 Taiwanese are isolated at home, including not a single confirmed case of infection, because they have to go to the clinic here. Without exception. The capacities are far from exhausted.
At the weekend, the number of cases in Germany is approaching the 100.000 mark, in Taiwan it is 363. Furthermore, new cases are almost exclusively returners from abroad.
You can also be free and disciplined together
I’m trying to get used to quarantine life. I answer my control call twice a day, which usually only lasts a few seconds: Are you all right? All right. The truth is that after three or four days I feel that being locked in is a burden. Outside it is 30 degrees on Sunday, the next park is right on my doorstep and is still inaccessible. Inwardly I struggle with my situation, because I am completely healthy (I think). Do I still have to comply with the regulations? For most Taiwanese, it seems that the rules adopted apply without any ifs and buts, for me they are a challenge that I work through mentally: I want to get out of here. No, I have to get out of here. It is unnecessary to lock up healthy people in the apartment, so I have the right to go outside …
As if by itself, my thoughts tend to translate subjective needs into something that is objectively mine.
I still adhere to the requirements, also so as not to burden the quarantine at home with arguments. Despite the low number of cases, many Taiwanese companies are introducing home offices, including the publisher where my friend works. At the beginning of the new week we have to share the only desk in the apartment, I get it in the morning, it in the afternoon. My friend, like many Taiwanese people, is suspicious of the fact that people in Germany criticize what is good for everyone – for example curfews – from the standpoint of individual rights. Is it really about the high value of fundamental rights or is it just about private selfishness? In any case, this is the hour of basic duties towards the community in times of crisis. Even if this is difficult to quantify, I see a greater willingness in Taiwan to put personal needs aside for the common good.
If it serves everyone, then me too, I often hear.
I’m torn again. To ask whether the massive restriction of individual liberties is legitimate and proportionate is not a liberal thing for me. At the same time, I see that a different but nonetheless democratic ethos has prevented the Taiwanese from having to consider such drastic measures as curfews at all. Obviously, you can also be free and disciplined together. In any case, here in Taiwan the crisis has clearly strengthened social cohesion. As a non-member of the WHO, the country is cut off from its flow of information – Beijing wants it that way and the world unfortunately obeys. Taiwan is rightly proud that Taiwan is still internationally recognized for its crisis management. Above all, they feel safe at home.
As of April 6, 2020, according to John Hopkins CSSE: Germany has 100.123 confirmed infections and 1584 deaths, in Taiwan there are 363 infections and 5 deaths. The dramatic situation in the US, Italy and Spain is well known.
Nobody in Taiwan believes that Europe will soon get a grip on the situation. When experts go through scenarios with up to ten million infected people in Germany alone, Taiwanese do not perceive it as healthy realism, but admitting defeat in light of their own incorrigibility, according to the motto: with us Germans, an effective fight against the virus is not possible anyway. My girlfriend recently said it to me in the face: “If everyone thought like you, we would soon have European conditions here.”
The term “European conditions” currently sounds rather bleak. An old place of longing that has been unmasked by recent events.
PS: I didn’t go jogging after all.