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In Formosa, Everything Goes Right

In Formosa, Everything Goes Right

How responsibly Taiwan handles COVID19! Lessons learnt the hard way are never forgotten. In 2003, ever since the first case of SARS was reported in Taiwan, the entire country geared up. During the 2009 swine flu, whether it was about isolating all suspect or probable cases in negative pressure rooms or equipping all healthcare workers with enhanced protective equipment, the medical aid teams did their best.

They have umpteen reasons to not sweat blood given the current frustrating battle situation. Taiwan's proximity to the outbreak's origin on mainland China is one. Contrary to what experts predicted Taiwan has had less than 400 confirmed cases because of their early intervention. Here in India, elected representatives were busy tweeting, teasing and taunting those who sent out warning signals. Considering the opposition as nothing if not an enemy, seems to be the rule of Indian democracy. So, repeated tweets and warnings were shrugged off or laughed at by our government.

A friend of mine who regularly takes part in the World Congress of Poets and has been to Taiwan a couple of times and shares a special bond with Taiwanese poets believes that Taiwan is Taiwan because the people believe they own Taiwan. The notion that all citizens are fundamentally equal despite differences in wealth, race, gender, religious faiths and education levels is the basis of democracy. Taiwanese people's collective faith in their equality is the most basic tenet of their democratic values and system of governance. This is how Taiwanese authorities and the justice system put a former president behind bars on bribery and corruption charges in the recent past. As much as they are expected,  representatives govern on behalf of and for the benefit of the people. The rule of law prevails for everyone, meticulously and not fitfully.

Health officials from across the world gathered at the World Health Assembly to take historic decisions to tackle the pandemic. But one self-ruling country that has been most successful at protecting its people from the global catastrophe was not part of the decision making body. It's bid to take part as a mute spectator and observer never worked. For Taiwan, seeking legitimacy in the international arena is double trouble. World Health Organization is not the place to discuss geopolitics and the world has come to know of it. Bully-boy or big brother tactics, China made sure 15 countries cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan. This, in no way deterred Taiwan from growing stronger and better. If Taiwan learnt one lesson from SARS and China is that they need to be very sceptical with data from China.

Self-confidence and collective solidarity of Taiwanese can be traced back to its triumphal self-liberation from an authoritarian past, its ability to thrive in the shadow of a massive, hostile neighbour that refuses to recognize its rights. We see countries that blame a neighbour for bad weather, don't we? Other countries must learn to chart its own path and learn from existential threats.

As we take a look at some cultural aspects of East Asian societies on how they deal with an accelerating outbreak and a vicious economic recession we tend to appreciate actualities. To gain international acclaim for the competence and efficiency of our response to any outbreak and above all to let citizens live a life of dignity, scholars and experts must be elevated to the highest levels of government. Taiwan's president Tsai Ingwen holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and the Vice President Chen Chein-Jen is a renowned epidemiologist. Digital Minister Audrey Tang is a noted computer programmer. Does equivalent bodies of other countries stand out as nonpartisan and merit-based as Taiwan!
"Taiwan actually has a functioning democratic government run by sensible, well-educated people"

For instance in India, since most leaders are career politicians with an undying affinity towards business tycoons, it does not come as a surprise that policy decisions proposed and made by them appear to be swayed more heavily by political and personal concerns than public health priorities. It's high time that every country out there can at least take a side look at Taiwan and wonder why we couldn't think or do things their way. A combination of alacrity needed for an early response, the wherewithals for pervasive screening, tracing and testing, skillful use of technology and  transparency in sharing information made surveillance and control a little more easier. A balance between political leadership and expertise within the parliamentary structure of government can nurture public trust and cobble together a semblance of a strategy. Sadly, India has not fared so well with the overwhelming spread and death toll of the virus because the primary task force is made up of insiders, members of the ruling coalition who have entrenched electoral interests.

A closer look reveals that Taiwan's success has its roots in its socio-historical contingencies that gave rise to national consciousness, collective will and single identity. Regrettably, our history was different. Instead of learning from history many ignore it or distort it. Especially during cataclysms, India seems to be bad at the act of governance by its inability to nurture public trust by its actions and transparency. By repeatedly offering to share its knowledge and experience with the world as part of its "Taiwan can help '' campaign this country chose to ignore its neighbour and embrace the more aggressive policy as it's necessary for the public good by spending T$1.05 trillion ($35 billion).

Here in our country, while the ardous, life threatening homeward trek of thousands continue, our countrymen are debating tirelessly to find one difference between the PM-NRF (PM National Relief Fund) and PM-CARES Fund. Should we also debate on fostering cooperative federalism in the country as far as the operation of any fund administered by the government is concerned? In a democracy, free flow of information and public information sharing are needed to construct a healthy civil society, definitely the best public health strategy as well.

An active civil society including NGOs is indispensable in fighting a pandemic as severe as this. Terms of cooperation and support from Indian government to its civil society are unclear. To call on NGOs with FCRA registration to report on the activities undertaken by them in relation to COVID-19 is not urgent but to exempt all NGOs engaged in healthcare, sanitation, migrant labour, unorganised labour sector, and disaster management under Section 50 of the FCRA from its applicability is. Digital Minister Audrey Tang, a coordinator between the government and private sector was quick enough to borrow an idea from a Taiwanese software engineer who built an online real-time map that can show where masks are stocked in convenience stores and drugstores across the island. And a better version of the platform with government data was made available to the public. Even socially intrusive technological interventions were accepted by the Taiwanese because they totally trust in the government's integrity. Taiwan FactCheck Center (TFC) and MyGoPen, as third-party independent institutions fact-check and correct disinformation on the epidemic and disseminate the right information to the public. Is our government ready to trust the social sector, much like it trusts the private businesses open to foreign investment? The coronavirus crisis reveals that India has not yet found the right balance.

Soon after the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) was activated in Taiwan in January, addressing press conferences became a daily business to announce the latest policy and information on the epidemic, and to clarify rumours that are circulating on social media. And, here's the rub. By addressing the nation through  All India Radio, DD National and DD News, a supposedly acclaimed monthly programme, an Indian leader routinely downplays or misinforms or misrepresents the state of affairs until the severity of anything becomes too big to ignore. Being the first prime minister in democratic India who has never held an 'authentic' press conference, he seems to take comfort in the assumption that he reflects the minds, expressions and expectations of the people by keeping politics out of his talk. If there is any silver lining in this broadcast, it's that the disaster now upon us is of immense scope that it could once again expose the foul play of forces that have been wrecking havoc on our governmental institutions. 

Will we learn or won't we learn is a pressing issue. In conclusion, educated leaders are an asset, honesty is a responsibility and virtues require competence for any country to prevent new infections and celebrate more recoveries.

(Harry Sheridon- was priv. secretary to the President of India Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam. Elsa Lycias Joel-  holds  a doctorate  in biotechnology )

(Published on 15th June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 25)