How Taiwan largely escaped COVID
For a country with a population size similar to Australia in an area of land 215 times smaller, the tiny island of Taiwan has battled the COVID-19 pandemic with spectacular efficiency.
Scenes of packed public transport, bustling shopping centres and busy street markets with masked citizens perusing various goods are common.
Large-scale events like Pride festivals and exhibitions are also back on the calendar and restaurants and bars returned to trading in May.
Taiwan's virus figures have been minimal, too.
Throughout the pandemic the country has only recorded 785 total cases with a total of seven deaths, with the latest case of community-transmission breaking its streak of 254 days, a global record.
In comparison, Australia has a total of 28,337 cases with a total of 909 deaths.
Despite this, Taiwan's success at managing COVID-19 was a lesson bitterly learnt.
IN THE SHADOW OF SARS
Like other Asian countries, Taiwan experienced the SARS epidemic between 2002 to 2004.
Taiwan had the highest global mortality rate from SARS, recording 73 deaths out of 346 cases - or 21.2 per cent.
In comparison, China recorded a mortality rate of 6.6 per cent with 349 deaths out of 5327 cases.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency earlier this year, Taipei-based doctor Sue Sung-How said the country was able to respond more quickly and efficiently when COVID-19 reared its head.
This included a streamlined disaster management system for epidemics and pandemics, contact tracing protocols and processes to manage medical equipment like PPE for medical workers and face masks.
"This time around, there was a quicker and more effective response by the government," he said.
"One of the first things the authorities did was to ban the export of protective masks, since they were essential for the local population."
He added, "People started using face masks at once, while the authorities focused on hospitals and monitoring movement there. They checked who was coming and going, and everyone had to undergo temperature checks."
The government also swiftly introduced negatively pressurised isolation wards so severely infected patients would not infect others, and created over 20,000 hospital beds across Taiwan.
PUTTING THE PLAN INTO PRACTICE
Compared to the rest of the world, Taiwan recorded its first case of coronavirus - a 50-year-old woman who returned from teaching in Wuhan, China - relatively early, on January 21.
Immediately, borders were closed to Wuhan on January 23, a full two days before the Chinese city went into lockdown.
Masks were another priority. Taiwan immediately stopped exports of masks and increased their daily production of surgical masks to 17 million by April.
In order to temper panic buying, the purchasing of masks was also rationed. Earlier in the pandemic, residents were only allowed to buy three masks per week, but that figure soon increased to nine in April.
Heavy fines were also put in place for people who evaded the rules. For example, a man was fined the equivalent of $4600 for leaving his quarantine room for just eight seconds.
And refusing to wear a face mask can still incur a fine between $140 and $700.
The line between individual freedoms and the welfare of the state were also blurred.
Instead of a COVID-tracing app, anybody in quarantine or isolation were forced to share their location data with authorities, with an alert issued if someone's phone was turned off for over 15 minutes.
Twice-daily phone calls were also carried out to ensure compliance.
Speaking to CNBC, Taiwanese citizen Catherine Chou - who voluntary paid for her own hotel quarantine after leaving Los Angeles - explained the societal culture which helped the government garner high compliance rates.
"We have this phrase in Taiwan that roughly translates to, 'This is your country, and it's up to you to save it,'" she said.
"I'm really glad that they're taking this quarantine seriously."
LIFE IN TAIWAN
Nearly 12 months on from Taiwan's first recorded case of COVID-19, it seems like the decisive action and quick uptake has paid off.
Writing for Bloomberg, Taipei-based opinion columnist Tim Culpan describes life in the country as "ridiculously normal".
"In the past few months I've joined music festivals and marathons, swum in public pools and worked out at fully-functioning gymnasiums, had drinks at packed bars and attended banquet dinners," he writes.
"Not one but two Pride parades were held this year in Taipei while the same event was cancelled in almost every other city around the world."
He credits Taiwan's success to the work of Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, whose approval rating at one point peaked at 91 per cent.
"In a veritable gangsta move, he and his team fronted a press conference wearing pink masks after reports that male students wouldn't wear the colour out of fear they'd be bullied," Culpan writes.
"Pink subsequently became the hippest colour covering faces across the country."
A diligent dedication to wearing masks wearing was another key pillar of the country's success, according to Culpan.
Unlike western countries like Australia and the US where face coverings still aren't compulsory, in Taiwan they were immediately welcomed and mandated in public spaces.
The government also recently introduced new rules on December 1 that made masks mandatory in eight types of public areas to curb virus transmission during the winter. This included places of worship, entertainment and leisure venues, educational institutions, shopping centres, public transport and medical care facilities.
Despite the opposite being observed in western countries, to the Taiwanese, wearing masks represented a kind of "real freedom", writes Culpan.
"As videos circulated of rebellious Americans refusing the most basic of precautions under the pretence of freedom, Taiwan shook its collective head and nodded at what real freedom looked like - the ability to have a drink at a bar without fear of catching a deadly airborne illness," he writes.
'SUCCESS IS NO COINCIDENCE'
As the UK sits on the cusp of entering a potential six-week 'Tier 5' lockdown and US continues to record surging COVID-19 cases, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen says "centuries of hardship" contributed to her country's success.
"Centuries of hardship have compelled our society to cope, adapt, and survive trying circumstances," she wrote in a piece for Time magazine in April. "A combination of efforts by medical professionals, government, private sector and society at large have armoured our country's defences."
She added, "This success is no coincidence."
Originally published as How country largely escaped COVID