“Is this… happening all over again?”
I had the privilege of weathering SARS as a student, and though memories are hazy since that was back in 2003, I distinctly recall the miasma of fear and uncertainty that shrouded the island. Those negative emotions are more than likely heightened for me, because my school ended up closing after a student’s parent died from SARS.
Taiwan is 81 miles away from China with 24 million people crammed into an area the size of Maryland. There’s frequent travel across the strait for business, tourism, and academics.
When local news hesitantly mentioned a new respiratory disease on CNY Eve (Jan 24), I had a long discussion with my parents on whether we should prepare ourselves. Thinking about it again and again, I reluctantly ordered some face masks after the traditional family reunion dinner. The masks were very cheap, things considering, and all the gatherings to come over the next week meant we could distribute them to relatives.
“Surely it’s not going to be another SARS. You’re knee-jerking a bit too much.” I think that might’ve been my mom.
Thank goodness I hit “buy” before falling asleep. They were all sold out two days later.
This is where day 58 comes from.
This will be a sharing of anecdotal thoughts and less of a play-by-play analysis of the government’s actions. If you’re interested in those, please check out the well-written articles linked above!
Not gonna lie, the first few weeks were pretty tense.
The coronavirus hitting around CNY was the best worst timing. This is a holiday in Asia that can span two weeks, depending on the country, and is Christmas/Thanksgiving/Easter all rolled into one. For migrant workers, this is the only time of year where they get to see their family. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this period the annual Asian migration.
A tense undercurrent immediately started running through family gatherings. Regardless of intensity, the island’s population remembers SARS very well.
Questions were bandied around, “Do we cancel the traditional meal on the second day of CNY? Should we not visit each other this year? Should so-and-so with young kids head home early?”
In the end, my family decided to go through all of the CNY festivities with face masks on and adjusted times to avoid crowds.
Daily news updates starting rolling in; a grim atmosphere settled onto the island. We still had our fair share of blasé folks, like some relatives who initially declined the extra face masks. But by and large, folks acknowledged the need for caution.
Why the sudden ratcheting up of tension? I get it, it’s hard for folks who’ve never experienced something similar to understand what’s going on. It looks like an overreaction, or a bunch of Chicken Littles prophesying the end of the world.
Here’s a quote from someone who has COVID-19: “To everyone who said it was just a bad cold or like the flu, or that people were far more likely to be asymptomatic: f*ck you. You have no idea what you’re talking about. This is not the cold. This is worse than the worst flu I’ve had. This is the Grim Reaper knocking on my door.”
SARS was less infectious, but more fatal than the coronavirus.
It really hit home when a businessman returning from Wuhan flouted his self-quarantine and visited a seedier nightclub. Alarm bells rang when one of the ladies who served him came down with a cough, sore throat, and other symptoms. Upon demanding answers, she finally learned of his recent trip. The club shut down for immediate, thorough disinfection, and the businessman’s route over the past few days was disseminated to the public.
The club was in the same neighborhood as my elderly relatives, and I’d just missed his trip down the high speed rail by one day.
Thankfully, he wasn’t a super spreader and that was the end of that case. However, I started checking the news obsessively and worried there were more selfish pricks out there.
Could I trust the people on the bus I was taking? Was that cough just now as innocent as it seemed? Who else was hiding their travel history? Where does case 34 live??
PSA: To anyone flouting self-quarantine rules, yeah you’re a selfish prick/biatch. The desire to go drinking, clubbing, shopping, eating, and seeing friends can wait two weeks. It took one super spreader in South Korea to infect almost 40 people at church, which sent off a chain reaction throughout the country.
I don’t care if you feel healthy. The incubation period is 14 days and infectious even when asymptomatic. Stay. home. If there’s a lockdown order in place for your area, please don’t treat it as a joke.
Everything was uncertain in the first couple of weeks. The island braced for a possible ballooning of cases, and whispers ran rife through the streets.
“So-and-so’s uncle’s neighbor’s mother’s daughter-in-law’s second-cousin-twice-removed’s son says that a confirmed case popped up at XXX hospital!”
“New construction suddenly started on my block. Can it be for quarantine tents??”
“I heard this is airborne.” “I heard it’s not airborne.” “Is it airborne?”
“They announced 7 new cases today, but who knows if that’s the real number? How many more lurk amongst us?”
How’s life in Taiwan nowadays? TL;DR – it’s normal
After CNY, I wondered if I should refrain from returning to Taipei, but did so in the end. There were roughly 10 cases on the island at the beginning of Feb, and I admit I selfishly wanted to return to familiar surroundings.
As the coronavirus flairs up in the west, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and family on how everything is here. And honestly, that ties into one of the hardest things about writing this article — what to title it.
Taiwan’s not under a lockdown, and neither am I in quarantine. “A COVID-19 Tale: Things-Are-Relatively-Normal-Despite-General-Unease Day 58”?
First time outside since the end of CNY.— etvolare (@etvofluff) January 31, 2020
90%+ of general public in face masks, disinfectant run over MRT escalator handrails, malls constantly mopped, Din Tai Fung servers in masks & mask prices coming down tomorrow.
Honestly.. feeling pretty safe 💪 Bonus: CNY MRT music pic.twitter.com/dL2nEX4cvx
People are out on the streets, I got my fix of bubble tea today, and all establishments are still open. Large-scale events like concerts and weddings are cancelled, but life has continued on like usual. In fact, I feel that we were getting too complacent, and the recent spike in cases has jolted everyone back to wakefulness again.
This isn’t to say that the coronavirus is a joke, however. One patient’s tale above shows more than anything how it’s very, very serious. It all has to do with the measures the island took. This is how it manifested in my day-to-day.
When I returned to Taipei, I saw with gratification that all stores and restaurants had hauled out disinfectant and thermometers. This continues to this day. A quick scan of the forehead and splash of alcohol is required before entering an establishment. Some performance halls even record everyone’s temperature next to their names. Thermal screening is found in malls, the MRT, and businesses. Face masks are everywhere, despite the initial shortage.
This is one of the things that’s saddened me the most re. east vs west COVD-19 reactions. The face mask culture is so different, and I’ve had so many friends targeted with racism when wearing them in the west. Face masks are not useless, and if most of the population is wearing it, that drastically helps cut down infection.
Overheard a truck going down the street rapping,— etvolare (@etvofluff) February 2, 2020
“Wear face masks, wear face masks, you and I should wear face masks!
Wear face masks, wear face masks, everybody in face masks!”
Never change, Taiwan. You’re too cute.
A bit of levity from the #Wuhan coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/f4M8UMnct9
Apologies for the hashtag, this is before the COVID-19 name came out.
After the initial scramble for face masks, the government stepped in to centralize distribution and regular prices. I helped some relatives purchase their daily quota from convenience stores, but didn’t bother lining up for any myself when purchase was later tied to national health ID cards.
That fortuitous order right before CNY kept me going for a slight bit, and given the nature of my job as a literary translator, there was no real need for me to go outside. (Click here for more about this disembodied voice blabbering at you.)
To quote a Taiwanese meme: 我ok, 你先買 > I’m okay, you buy first. When my masks ran out, I was blessed with the most generous readers on earth. Several of them leapt into action to send me what they could find.
This rationing extended to disinfectant as well, with the severity of rationing easing as factories ramp up production. People are also able to buy face masks online now instead of queuing for hours in front of a pharmacy (instructions above).
Nothing else is rationed. Shelves are stocked full of goods, except toilet paper. We’re short on that here too, lol. It briefly eased when the legislative leader memed that, “People, we only have one butt!”, but flared up again this week.
Daily livestreamed press conferences keep everyone in the loop. The authorities are forthcoming with information, except the exact location of the cases. That’s a stark difference from South Korea, and an omission that prompts plenty of debate. I found myself getting too stressed out and panicky with all the news coming in, so actively tried to refocus on other things in mid Feb.
I chuckled when the March 20th livestream announced that the entire world was now a level three travel advisory. This came three days after the March 17th livestream added 20+ countries to the travel advisory list. I wonder if an official just mentally threw up his hands and went, “Feck it, you get a level three, you get a level three, everyone gets a level three!”
By the way, foreign visitors are banned of as March 19 and as of March 22, even transit is banned. (Bans for various areas have been enacted since late Jan.) To folks blithely asking me if they can come visit Taiwan right now since flights are cheap, everything is closed at home, and they’re bored — you can’t, and even without that, HELLS NO. Don’t travel right now. There were 5,000 tourists caught off-guard about the ban on March 19. It was March 19, not January 19, folks! Why were you traveling for pleasure??
On a personal level, friends immediately cut down on social gatherings. No movies, no communal restaurants, and no welcoming back anyone who’s recently travelled. We pick local pubs and bars, eschewing the busy and tourist-popular Xinyi district.
What to do when CORVID-19 community infections are a thing in Taiwan?— etvolare (@etvofluff) February 21, 2020
Eschew all outside jaunts & have a house party! Friends were asked to take off their coats & wash their hands upon arrival & all asked abt recent travel history.
It’s honestly not that bad in Taiwan, jiayou! pic.twitter.com/2h6QpqokpM
We gather together just once a week, and birthday celebrations are a modest affair. There was one house gathering in mid Feb, and everyone entering the house got unified greetings of, “Hi!! Go wash your hands!”. And now, everything’s on hold for two weeks as we weather the wave of returnees from the west.
Many companies suddenly announced all non-essential employees were to work from home starting last week (March 18), likely in response to the massive increase in imported cases. Some of my friends have had to upgrade home internet to do so, the financial burdens of which are eased by government reimbursement. The second wave of government assistance rolled out on March 25 — mostly utility relief for households and companies. The first wave hit in mid-February, with 60B NTD going towards industries affected by the virus.
Despite being warned about a mass of returnees from the west, it is still a psychological blow to see numbers climbing 23 cases, 27 cases, 18, 16… Those are 10-20% daily increases. This has ratcheted up tension on the island, and were the final death knells for weddings to take place at the end of the month/beginning of the next.
And though folks in more stricken countries may roll their eyes and scoff at 200+ cases (March 25) being a big deal, that’s the thing when it comes to living in Asia. Things spread like wildfire with how densely packed in everyone is and how interconnected everything is. South Korea exploded with several thousand cases over the course of a single week.
What’s most irritating now are the quarantine escapees. Taiwan fines escapees up to 1,000,000 NTD (USD 33,000). Good. The fines should be higher. Just this weekend, we had a club reveler busted for violating quarantine (said club has decided to temporarily close down as of March 23). Due to a newly launched platform integrating multiple databases, big red characters of “UNDER QUARANTINE” popped up when his ID was scanned.
Tabs are kept on quarantined folks via cell phone tower triangulation — which sometimes can go hilariously wrong. Apart from that, folks receive multiple calls a day to inquire about their current health, and they’re whisked off to a negative pressure hospital room if any symptoms develop.
My phone, which is satellite-tracked by the Taiwan gov to enforce quarantine, ran out of battery at 7:30 AM. By 8:15, four different units called me. By 8:20, the police were knocking at my door.— Milo Hsieh (@MiloHsieh) March 22, 2020
Thankfully, most people do stay put, most likely encouraged by the new quarantine pay that’s been rolled out. Those under house quarantine receive 14,000 NTD for the two weeks (that’s almost 50% of the lowest monthly salary, almost USD 500). It’s not much, but employing both carrot and stick at the same time likely makes for higher effectiveness.
The number of home quarantine people in major cities #Taiwan as of March 24— T.H. Schee (@scheeinfo) March 24, 2020
New Taipei: 11,040
Yes they’re all phone tracked.
Source: CECC #coronavirus
Since I have a lot of friends in the local healthcare industry, I was quite worried about them early on. In late Jan, the government stepped in to control PPE production, distribution, and pricing — making for short-term general public shortages that were slowly eased as factory capacity increased (from a hefty investment). The shortage was at first irritating and panic-inducing from a general public perspective, but the wisdom there seems to be clear as I haven’t seen my friends agitate about a lack of PPE.
The government also merged data from the national health IDs to the customs + immigration dataset. This way, a patient’s recent travel history will pop up whenever they go in for an eye exam, a root canal, or a sniffle. Sadly, it’s proven useful because people will be selfish arseholes and conceal travel history, whether out of convenience or fear.
Oh c’mon, it’s just the flu! I’m young, it’s not gonna affect me.
If travel was still a thing, I’d hop on the next flight to physically shake you into next week. Hopefully, this has been debunked by now, and please read the tough guy’s account above. But if not, here goes:
- Symptoms can take up to 14 days to manifest, and you can infect others during this time.
- You can be an asymptomatic carrier and still infect others.
- The coronavirus death rate is 20 times more lethal than the flu.
- There is a vaccine, multiple vaccines for the flu. There is none for the coronavirus.
- This could be like the flu, if having the flu meant feeling like a Mack truck ran over your lungs, or that you’re breathing with shards of glass in your lungs.
- If pneumonia develops, fibrosis can occur in the lungs. Survivors suffer a permanent loss of lung function, even in relatively young patients.
- If you care about someone with a compromised immune system, asthma, any chronic condition, or is just simply older — this will hurt them so much more. It can easily kill them. This isn’t about you, it’s about them.
- Major symptoms: fever, cough, shortness of breath
You can do a lot more than you think to help!
At the end of the day, the measures have really worked for Taiwan. The island managed to hold cases to 59 for roughly two months, and the increase in imported cases was inevitable.
The government’s swift response was definitely crucial, but I think equally important was the public’s mindset. All the thermometers and disinfectant just whooshed into existence, and all patrons are very understanding and patient. Holding my hands out for a spray of alcohol is second nature now, and I actually panicked yesterday when my face unlocked my phone.
“Wait… Face ID just worked. I haven’t been able to do that in months… F*CK I FORGOT MY MASK AND I’M IN AN ELEVATOR. F*CKF*CKF*CK.”
The general mindset is mostly one of, “We understand the need for these inconveniences and why everyone’s being more cautious. Yes, it’s annoying. No, I won’t travel. …fine, my wedding is postponed. WTF is wrong with that friend who just came back from abroad and wants to meet up?? Million dollar question, when the hell is toilet paper gonna be back in stock?”
This kind of mindset is something that everyone needs to adopt, and understand that inconveniences are inevitable. We must buckle down in the short-term to ensure that everyone gets through this.
Avoiding indoor spaces and crowds means getting some exercise checking out urban nooks and crannies in Taipei!— etvolare (@etvofluff) February 6, 2020
Life goes on, as we see from communities preparing for the Lantern Festival and grabbing noodles from the neighborhood hole in the wall. 🤗 pic.twitter.com/eyu4gVvavX
There’s a Taiwanese meme of, “This is when not getting off our asses and just vegging out all day can save the world, don’t f*ck it up now!”
And it’s true! The best thing all of us can do is cut down on group gatherings (cut them out, if possible), avoiding crowds, and not thinking we’re invincible. One less cluster infection or one degree less community transmission means less of a load on our healthcare infrastructure. I read about how thousands of Argentinians sang from their balconies over the weekend, “Stay inside, you sons of b*tches.”
Heh, love it.
It’s not me I’m worried about — it’s my parents, my 90+ year old grandfather, and the elderly next door neighbor. I’d never be able to live with myself if I brought anything to them. It’s also not a walk in the park if a young person gets it.
Doom and gloom aside, what else can you do?
Definitely wash those hands. Whenever you come back inside, don’t touch anything before washing your hands. In fact, strip and shower before heading elsewhere in the house, if possible. Try not to touch your face and ears when outside.
Disinfect door knobs, locks, handles, and commonly shared areas on a regular basis. Wipe down groceries too! There’s no telling how many have handled them before you took them home.
Those with some extra supplies to spare, check in on your healthcare friends, grocery store employees, and delivery folk. Do they have enough? Maybe they need a roll of toilet paper. Finding a microwaveable, home-cooked meal on their doorstep when they come home after a 16-hour shift could mean so much to them. The only way we get through this is by caring for each other, together.
Friends who are extroverts or those who live alone could absolutely do with a checkup. I’ve taken to buying local baked goods and sending it to family in other cities. That knocks out two birds with one stone — supporting local businesses and reassuring folks that they’re not alone.
If you want to go hardcore with the baking, perhaps some home baked goods for those on the front lines. Something easy to eat and nutritious. They’ll really need it in the days to come.
That’s great and all etvo, but I’m seriously bored.
Haul out that homebody bucket list, because things are about to get wild. This is the perfect time for everything you’d always meant to get to, but just never did.
Since February, I’ve revamped my balcony garden, literally scrubbed every single surface and room in my apartment, Konmarie’d all of my belongings, finally organized the damn work shelves, annihilated every last bit of laundry (I never have a pile, woot!), cleaned out all home appliances, put up shelves, and started a wall mural of postcards. I’m still getting around to redoing my bookshelves. Oh you know what, cleaning the fridge will be a good task too.
Chores really do eat up a lot of time and they’re good exercise. At the end of it all, you’ll have a home you know is relatively germ-free, and a spic and span sight that’s easy on the eyes.
I’ve also caught up on several TV series, started a home gym routine, and written a ton in my bullet journal. Writing down your thoughts and feelings might greatly help in the days to come.
Do you know how to cook? Best. time. to. learn. ever. This is the beginning of a healthy, cheap habit that will pay dividends after all this is over. Bonus, there’s much less exposure if you don’t have to do food runs.
Social distancing means I’ve been in a restaurant twice in the last two months = plenty of time for home culinary adventures!— etvolare (@etvofluff) March 16, 2020
I’ve tried all sorts of odd combinations: Asian-flair spaghetti, substituting sweet potato pancakes for carbs & super fancy ramen. What’re you up to? pic.twitter.com/a3SUIAGUvk
When all that seems too solitary, it’s the perfect time to get back in touch with those you haven’t talked to in a while. College roommates, fraternity brothers, book club members, or heck, even the girl you never asked out. Silver lining: asking folks how they’re coping is an easy conversation starter.
I’m seeing friends watch movies together through online streaming syncing services. Absolutely brilliant! Group exercises might be a thing to try too. I did an hour of core sculpting yoga and got my butt absolutely kicked. I thought yoga was supposed to be stretching and relaxing?
The outside is still accessible! Throw open windows, chill out on a balcony, or walk around in your background. Even taking walks out and about is fine if you stay away from people. Vitamin D is helpful for the immune system and general mentalities. Disconnecting from the internet/news will do wonders for mental health. Find some inner peace and don’t let everything overwhelm you.
Ventured out of my usual neighborhood yesterday for some vitamin D and UV rays. Man the streets were quiet!— etvolare (@etvofluff) February 24, 2020
Also swung by the Howard Hotel, a favorite place of my folks when growing up. Great traditional Taiwanese food!
Then promptly stocked up on enough food for Armageddon 😂 pic.twitter.com/Zx4NH9n3Xj
Please take this seriously, but know that we’ll get through this.
The sky isn’t falling in, but neither is this just a flu. While my life is still relatively normal, I know that’s an abnormality. It’s hardly what you should expect, unless your government took similar measures and the general population is just as receptive.
Of course, our regular day-to-day this time ’round all comes from Taiwan being roundhouse-kicked in the face by SARS. We sure as heck don’t have all the answers, nor are we some perfect utopia. Back in the SARS days, the Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital was spontaneously closed after a cluster case broke out, sealing 930 staff and 240 patients inside.
I’m advised by local healthcare-related friends that medical personnel literally went insane from the pressure. Thankfully, I think that’s no longer a policy. This kind of prior experience is what’s shaped Taiwan’s reactions today. One doesn’t emerge from the flames completely unscathed and unchanged.
One of my greatest struggles now is still trying to get friends and family in the west to take this seriously. Westerners, I understand. It’s very difficult to imagine the impact of a pandemic if one’s never lived through it. But Asians with family in Asia? I actually had a relative ask me a few weeks ago, “C’mon, is it really~~~ that bad~?”
Hello?? Yes, please do treat this seriously.
But also, as crazy as the days now might seem, please don’t despair. Sure, this will take longer than a three-week lockdown to resolve, and everyone’s itching for this to be over quickly. Let’s stand with each other; we’re going to get through this. But do postpone everything through May. I was to attend a wedding in the States in late May — it’s just been moved.
Also, please let me know if you need food. I’ll put out a request on my social media, and if not, I can ship you ramen and curry blocks from Taiwan (they’ll take 8-13 business days).
May we live long and prosper.
Let’s go see the cherry blossoms together when this is over.— etvolare (@etvofluff) March 16, 2020
And watch a movie, eat hotpot, run a marathon, and swing by all the touristy places.
Lots of places on lockdown, but we’ll get through this. 💪 Stay calm, don’t drown in panic or grasp at rumors.#COVID19 pic.twitter.com/ZUbFz1J5Yd