Whether the darkness can be broken depends on whether more people are willing to light and pass on lanterns.
Infectious diseases originate from the large-scale group living of human beings; ironically, a pandemic not only endangers public health but also destroys the foundation of society – trust.
During the fight against the pandemic in 2020, Taiwan has used its open government model to successfully prevent the landslide effect of distrust
Since ancient times, the way to fight infectious diseases has been to increase interpersonal distances: closing country borders, locking down cities, stopping gatherings and so on. An increase in distrust seems inevitable – and some groups are even eager to blame the diseases on “others”, whether they are of a different race, nationality, or belief. That tendency has prevailed from the Black Death of medieval Europe to the COVID-19 of today.
During the fight against the pandemic in 2020, however, Taiwan has used its open government model to successfully prevent the landslide effect of distrust. At the onset of the pandemic, masks and other personal protective equipment quickly fell into a supply and demand imbalance. The government, to restore balance, adopted a real-name system in a timely fashion to guarantee fair distribution.
But selling masks was not enough: preventative measures against the disease would be effective only if the majority of people were willing to properly wear masks to cover their faces. Who would execute this plan? Taiwan’s over 6,000 pharmacists, each having not only knowledge but also engagement in their communities and neighbourhoods, seemed the best candidates for messengers the public would find trustworthy and approachable.
Yet not everything could be achieved simply by the public trusting pharmacists – for pharmacists, executing the mask initiative would be an extra chore that could affect the usual drug-dispensing business. But the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) did not issue orders forcing pharmacists to comply – instead, it designed the mask-rationing system based on the experience of retrieving medications with refillable prescriptions for chronic diseases, flattening the learning curve for everyone.
It also allowed pharmacists to come up with various innovations such as limited-hour sales and take-a-number systems to reduce wait times for the public. With such incentives, pharmacists integrated further into civic technology communities, improved automated processes, and helped people save time. The government reciprocated with complete trust in the cooperation, and continuously improved the data structures of the National Health Insurance Administration with weekly iterations, forming a virtuous cycle.
In other words, when the government was willing to understand the needs of pharmacists and provide space for mutual participation, the two complemented each other to win back more social trust. Only then did the pandemic-fighting national team lineup grow stronger.
There has also been a case where a worker in an intimate bar was diagnosed with COVID-19; in spaces like that, both guests and employees are particularly sensitive to privacy. However, in terms of pandemic prevention, failing to provide reliable information for tracking would lead to significant vulnerabilities.
But the government did not invoke sanctions or order nightclubs to close down if they refused to cooperate with pandemic controls: such measures could reinforce the stigma society attaches to workers in nightclubs and intimate bars, or could cause businesses to go underground (as in the Prohibition era). Both situations would only make the spread of the pandemic even more unpredictable.
Fortunately, experts at the CECC with extensive prior experience with HIV positive communities devised a practical “real-contact system” — as long as people could be effectively contacted, no real names were necessary. The CECC also clearly explained the scientific crux — social distancing must be maintained and droplet infections must be avoided. As long as businesses could achieve this, they could remain open.
Despite not imposing citywide lockdown measures, Taiwan still cannot be considered a utopia.
As a result, businesses developed creative approaches such as leaving code names, single-use emails and prepaid mobile phone numbers, or providing hats with plastic shields to maintain social distancing. When even nightclubs could join the fight, the prevention effort garnered even more social trustworthiness.
The pandemic has also brought severe challenges to national governance. Countries have adopted isolation measures such as national or city-wide lockdowns, school suspensions, and business closures — turning many countries and cities into lonely islands à la Lord of the Flies . Being isolated from the world brings pressure: although leaders may have been elected through democratic processes, democracy is still rooted in competition between parties, giving rise to escalating opposition and conflict: every person sees a “beast” projected from their mind. Unquestionably, the easiest casualties are science and reason – thus, as Lord of the Flies describes: “They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate.” As the pandemic spreads, these dramas continue to play out.
Despite not imposing citywide lockdown measures, Taiwan still cannot be considered a utopia. This truth is especially apparent in Taiwan’s international activity: being inappropriately overlooked and blockaded has created domestic pressure. Even without a pandemic, there has always been a lot of fighting among parties. Epidemic prevention only makes it more likely the fighting will worsen.
But right before the fiercely contested election this January, one survey showed that, regardless of their political leanings, the public had a high degree of recognition for the deepening of democracy and international connection. It was like a kindle of fire radiating warmth in a world filled with wind and snow.
A single lantern
Legislator Kao Hung-an once served as vice president of data analysis at Foxconn. She recently cited the data from the geoBingAn mask map, pointing out that the difference between supply and demand in different regions caused unfair distribution and requesting an adjustment from equal rations. Chen Shih-chung, Minister of Health and Welfare, did not angrily defend the existing policy. Instead he said, “Legislator, please teach us,” and revised it.
Digital innovation is also very important; on the internet, we don’t have to maintain social distancing. More importantly, digital spaces allow all footprints to remain: everyone can have a voice and a part to play.
This reminds me of a Buddhist saying: “A thousand-year-old dark room can be illuminated by a single lantern.” Whether the darkness can be broken depends on whether more people are willing to light and pass on lanterns.
I do not naively believe that the world will become a better place as long as everyone has good intentions. Digital innovation is also very important; on the internet, we don’t have to maintain social distancing. More importantly, digital spaces allow all footprints to remain: everyone can have a voice and a part to play.
The mask map happens to be a suitable example of this. The National Health Insurance Administration posted real-time information on mask availability at pharmacies on the national open data platform; in less than a week, over a hundred apps were developed by various groups to channel this information through different maps, chat robots, or voice assistants. It is equivalent to establishing a distributed ledger. And as time passes and people continue to contribute in this way, trust will continue to accumulate.
In a digital world, distance doesn’t separate friends. The pandemic may have temporarily isolated us from loved ones, but in many ways the digital space has brought us even closer. If they want to support and boost this movement of trust, governments can start with one simple principle: trusting their people.
Republished under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License with the permission of the Author. Originally published on the Taiwan Government Public Digital Innovation Space.
This piece is part of the "Democratic Response to COVID-19" series curated by Involve and the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Westminster University.
Audrey Tang is Taiwan’s first Digital Minister. With her extensive experience as a Software Programmer and with the support fo the tech community and civil society, she has made Taiwan a world leader in innovative citizen participation and has adopted this approach in the country's response to Covid-19.