Our Taiwan COVID Experience

“There’s a phrase in Chinese: One thrives in times of calamity and perishes in soft times. Because when you’re very successful you are not forced to improve. Only when you fail, then are you forced to improve,” – Ko Wen-je, a former surgeon, and mayor of Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei (May 27, 2021)


Our Taiwan COVID experience can be summarized as such:

  1. Blissful Bubble
  2. The Vaccine
  3. Bubble Popped
  4. Level 3

1.  Blissful Bubble

As you can see in our blog posts, we lived a rather normal life for all of 2020. Taiwan kept the virus as bay for more than a year, and recorded just 1,128 cases and 12 deaths. It was surreal to be living here while we watched the rest of the world struggle and suffer.  Part of the success is because Taiwan is a relatively small island with only a few ports of entry to manage.  From our perspective, public health never got tangled in politics here as it did in the USA. Taiwanese people seem to actively seek accountability from politicians in fighting the pandemic. It would be unconscionable to not put public health and safety first, which is one of the reasons Taiwan is considered a success story.

This 7 minute clip produced by PBS captures the bubble creation:

“During the pandemic, Taiwan went about business as usual. Schools were open, concerts were playing, theaters were packed. Restaurants were bustling, the economy was booming, and expatriates and overseas Taiwanese flooded into the island. Taiwan was among a group of fortunate countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, and Singapore, whose citizens went about business as usual as tight borders, strict quarantine rules, and excellent contract tracing kept the virus at bay.” – Wayne Soon, thediplomat.com

The downside to a bubbled country is no guests and no leaving! We miss both so much. Our last guest was our friend Erica back in mid-December 2019! Turning lemons into lemonade, we converted the guest bathroom to Sarah’s POT-tery studio. Get it?

We also have not left Taiwan since January 2020.  In May of 2020, knowing that our travel would be on island for a while, we converted our minivan to a camper van.

And since our building’s mahjong room was closed due to covid (and still is), Sarah took matters into her own hands and bought a mahjong table and hosts her own mahjong games / birthday parties now! #prolevel

Susan’s birthday (on right) Sept. 2020

2.  The Vaccine

In March 2021, Taiwan receives its first batch of AstraZeneca via COVAX. COVAX is the that life-saving global effort, part of the WHO (World Health Organization), to develop, manufacture and equitably distribute a vaccine especially to vulnerable populations. T&$%# opted out of all WHO participation in 2020, which was a huge blow to global efforts. Biden re-joined WHO which did benefit Taiwan. COVID won’t be eradicated without a global effort.

When the vaccine news was announced, 10 priority groups were listed. Based on these priorities, we assumed we wouldn’t get vaccinated until the fall.

To everyone’s surprise, very few people wanted a vaccine. WHY? There was no threat of COVID in March. Taiwan got anxious that this first vaccine batch may expire, so they create a self-paid vaccine program and made it available to everyone (approx $12 USD for both shots). Since we wanted to travel home and see our families, safely, we signed up faster than a toupee in a typhoon! On day 2 of the program, April 22, we got our first shot. We were more than happy to prevent some vaccines from expiring.

Michelle & Scott at the Taichung Hospital vax waiting area.
So grateful for wonderful helpers translating forms for us.
A day to remember! I was all verklempt.
Shot #1 with our buds, Michelle & Alex. Check.

3.  Bubble Popped

“We were too successful in the past year.” – Ko Wen-je, mayor of Taipei

Then in mid-May 2021 everything changes. A relaxed quarantine protocol for airline pilots caused a COVID breakthrough, and our blissful bubble popped. It took less than a week for things to unravel. Viruses will quickly find a weakness in the defense! The virus had spread locally in untraceable clusters, particularly in Taipei. Up to this time, all cases were imported from people flying in from other countries, and those people were sent to quarantines to recover. Taiwan jumped to action because:

  1. Unlike the USA, less than 1% of the population was vaccinated at this time.
  2. Worldwide, the Delta variant was ramping up and that would be devastating on an unvaccinated population.

4.  Level 3

Taiwan quickly implements a countrywide Level 3 Alert. We were just hiking out of Shei-Pa National Park (my dad’s memorial hike) when this went into effect. The National Parks closed the next day on May 17.  This alert was extended in 2 week increments until July 27.

Simple, clear, and concise rules (in English) helped us immensely during a pandemic.
Fines helped too. It sucks wearing a mask while running and cycling!

This short clip explains what went wrong.

If you saw the video, you’ll see why we think this concept is so brilliant & efficient. Gonna miss this back in the USA. And yes, that’s Sarah’s hair 5.5 years ago.

We can’t read the local Mandarin news, but we read the daily English newspaper and have to give props to Taiwan’s CECC for TRANSPARENCY and ACCOUNTABILITY. We can easily understand the daily infection rate, locations of infections, ages and gender of infected people, if they had underlying conditions, if they died, was it a local or imported case, vaccinated or not (mostly not), nation’s vaccination rate, vaccination registration updates, death tally, and on and on. As for accountability, Taiwan’s government will pay subsidies of $3,565 USD to the families of people who died of COVID-19… to show that “the government is with them during this difficult period”. News article here.

Kudos if you can figure this out. Our point is that public health measures seem to be based on data, not opinions, and they share it with the public! #mathmatters

With scary untraceable infections on the island, EVERYONE wants their vaccine now! Hospitals are jamming, and not many healthcare workers are immunized. It’s a big concern. So Taiwan halts the self-paid program that we’re enrolled in. We are understandably pushed to the back of the line.

Since May, Taiwan has been hustling to get vaccines on the island, mostly through donations. Today, Taiwan has ordered 52 million doses, but delivery remains a challenge, so only a fraction of these are actually here.

  • 30 mill. Taiwan’s own procurement
  • 15 mill. donated by the private sector
  • 3.34 mill. donated by Japan
  • 2.5 mill. donated by USA
  • 20,000 donated by Lithuania

Although we were concerned about getting our second shot, we did get it 10.5 weeks later, on July 6 thanks to the donations. This was the second-happiest day of 2021.

We bumped into our hash buddy, Fielding, in the waiting zone.
Shot #2. Check. Notice how the nurses are way more kitted up now.
And Tati (plus Joe) in Jeju, South Korea, got their first shot on July 31! (RBG shirts from Wendy.)

Level 3 wasn’t fun, and we still have plenty of restrictions in our current Level 2 (mandatory masks as soon as you leave your home, contact tracing, caps on gatherings, etc.), but it was nothing compared to the long shutdowns that our friends and families had to endure in the USA or the intermittent lockdowns that many countries are still experiencing.

Tipsy is a favorite bar in the ‘hood.

Many people ask how contact tracing (aka name registration) works here.

Every venue has a custom QR code printed at their entrance.  You are expected to scan it with your phone (or sign in with pencil on paper if you’re phone-less).  The scan creates a self-generated text message on your phone, providing the identification code of the venue. You just hit “send” on this message, which will then be collected and stored by their telecom providers for 28 days.  It takes about five seconds, does not require an Internet connection, and any messaging expense is covered by the telecom providers.

If an outbreak occurs at the venue, it’s now quite efficient to contact trace and alert people to a possible infection / outbreak now. Everyone seems to participate in this because it’s mandatory, and wouldn’t you want to know if you had contact with the virus? YES!

Brilliant system. Note the mask fine at the bottom.
Scan, hit send, and enter store to buy your park happy hour brew. It’s that easy!
Available at 7-11 now. A true convenience store.

At the time of this posting, Taiwan has 15,775 cases, 806 deaths, and 7.88 million people vaccinated with their first shot. That’s 33% of the population! However, only 1.65% of the population is fully immunized, so everyone is cautious, masking, and socially distancing.

Thankfully, things are somewhat under control after just 2 months. Because Taiwan can trace all current infection clusters, we’re back to Level 2. If that changes, then back to Level 3 we go.

Borders still remain closed except for residents, and that will likely be the case for a long time due to the contagious Delta variant. We cancelled a trip home this summer, partly because of Delta, but mostly because of a new quarantine rule. Incoming residents must spend 2 weeks in a hotel quarantine (on your own dime) unless you’re coming from UK, Brazil, India, Peru, Israel, Indonesia, Bangladesh, or Myanmar then you get to stay in the government quarantine for FREE. Weeeee!

FREE quarantine accommodations! Photo: taipeitimes.com

Quarantines are a tight system here. You go in your room, and you do not open that door aside from collecting your 3 meals a day, which are left outside the door by staff. You are also nasal swabbed upon landing at the airport and twice during quarantine.

After the 2-week quarantine, everyone must do 1-week of “self-health management” which is like a lighter version of the quarantine. Then you are free – as long as you wear a mask outside!

Taiwan let its guard down, but it did a darn fine job of correcting and bringing the virus back under control. It’s also easier to manage a pandemic when you’re an island with controllable borders and take a unified approach, versus the USA with multiple entry points, 50 states each with a different set of rules. It also makes a difference that Taiwan is a collectivist culture (USA is an individualistic culture).

Regardless of culture, PUBLIC HEALTH matters to all. Until the USA has a national health care system and national public health mandates, it’s a governor’s responsibility to protect a state’s public health. Something to remember at election time.

Stay safe and let’s take care of each other because this isn’t over yet.


Want the freshest blog post to pop up in your email? Sign up here and check your email for a confirmation.


4 thoughts on “Our Taiwan COVID Experience

  1. I’m so, so glad you so thoroughly documented the Taiwanese handling of the Covid pandemic. Remarkable cooperation, creative use of technology for tracking. Superior caring, educated and dedicated leadership sending out concise directions and protocols to all citizens. So helpful and filled with kindness and the best intentions.

    We had the tech, the advanced medical research, a citizenry hungry for solid information — but —-we were lied to by our leader back in January 2020.
    He knew.
    Then he made light of the virus, scorned masks and tracking and provided zero centralized coordination in preference to pushing responsibility over to totally flummoxed and unprepared State Governors— in this way our Federal leadership specifically —aka—TFG—and his foul minions—abnegated all responsibilities. “Not our watch— don’t blame us! We didn’t do nuttin’”
    We sure are free here! Such fun to be free—“so much winning”! We’re such winners we created a whole new virus variant just for us! We’re Making American Cemeteries Great ….Again!
    I’m so relieved to know you have been in a safe, sane and properly run country— a country with democratic principles that strongly supports the quaint, old-fashioned notion that the health & education of ALL its citizens is foremost.

  2. I’m glad you all enjoyed a mostly normal year. I heard about the outbreak in Taiwan but not much more was being said about it, past how it got in, on the news I was catching. Taiwan has definitely created a system that is superior to America’s system. I watched the videos and have a really hard time believing Americans would every agree to scanning their phones (they’ll be tracked-I mean, they already have a tracker Bill Gates inserted into their arm) or agree to a two week quarantine upon re-entry. I recall my sister leaving OR to visit my parents in AZ and asking my Dad if she’d quarantine before seeing them at their condo during the height of COVID. My Dad laughed and said she was only staying a week and that everything would be fine. He was just at the casino the day before and everyone was spaced out but of course, not all were masked. My Mom recently told me, just before the CDC reversed their lame-brained scheme to incentivise vaccines by ditching masks in public, that it felt weird to be maskless at Costco the other day. She was perplexed that I contradicted the CDC and told her to wear a mask indoors–everywhere, considering the amount of cases being detected in Israel, one of the highest vaccinated countries at the time.

    Italy has just instituted a Green Pass that requires anyone who wants to do indoor things to be vaccinated or have been tested negative within two days. They have a QR code on their vaccine card that allows them to enroll in the program. Of course, our CDC in America doesn’t have one, and I have to produce my CDC card if I want to ride the speed train, take a ferry, see a concert, attend a wedding, or go into a restaurant or museum. I highly doubt Americans are willing to agree to a vaccine pass like that.

    I’m still trying to convince my husband’s Southern parents their N95 masks will indeed prevent the COVID aerosols from getting into their nasal passages after seeing a facebook meme saying otherwise that his step-dad reposted. Sigh.

    I’ve been incredibly bored here in Italy because I only go to uncrowded, outdoor places with the kids. We had almost two months where we weren’t in lockdown and no tourists were allowed in. It’s been the first time in a year and a half we went anywhere. We visited Venice, with only locals and a few agriturismos along the Med and Adriatic but with Ferragista this weekend, and all of Italy pretty much on vacation for this month, we are again staying at home.

    I’ve missed a trip to Bonaire as well as a year of family coming to visit us in Italy, hiking the Camino with friends, and all the interactions with Italians I had hoped for when we moved here, but I’m lucky. I’m vaccinated and my family is healthy.

    Thanks for the great post and an update on your situation in Taiwan. I miss you guys. Your zest for all the good things life brings has always sparked creative inspirations that help me to refocus on all the good things around me and those I love. xoxo

  3. Such a GREAT recap! Spot on. And I hope we can play Mahjong the minute I am out of self-health management. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *