What if I told you there was a country of 23 million people that had pretty much got Covid-19 sorted?
A country that had had just 6 deaths and 429 confirmed cases as of April 30th, despite the first of those cases being confirmed on January 21st, almost six weeks before the UK.
A country that had figured out how to do tracking and tracing in a way that was compatible with privacy concerns, and even increased the ability of citizens to hold their government to account.
A country that was right at the leading edge globally in the development of both tests and vaccines.
A country that had just kicked off the new season of its most popular sport, albeit with stadia populated only with the odd atmosphere-generating robot.
A country that had even found a way to control the spread of misinformation — a horrendous side of the Covid-19 story that most of us don’t even realise is a problem, let alone a problem that one country has found a solution to.
And what if, to cap all that off, I told you that this country lies only 80 miles off the coast of mainland China, and that its capital city in particular has extensive trading links with Wuhan?
Welcome to Taiwan.
All of the above and more is true, and the contrast with the actions of the UK government is so stark as to be almost absurd.
On 31st December, the day the World Health Organisation was notified of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan, the Taiwanese government immediately began to test arrivals from the city before they could disembark their flights. By 5th January, anyone who had been to Wuhan in the last 14 days had been notified and tested for 26 different viral strains. Anyone with symptoms was quarantined at home with medical support. On March 19th, after a slight increase in the number of cases, Taiwan closed its borders to nonresidents.
Britain’s first confirmed case was on 28th February. Yesterday, May 3rd, the Transport Minister Grant Shapps said in an interview that the government here is “actively looking at” introducing measures including mandatory quarantine for foreign arrivals — which still number 15,000 a day. 200,000 people have so far arrived from Spain, one of the worst hit nations, with none tested on arrival.
On 20th January — the day China confirmed human-to-human transmission (after having led the WHO to insist there was no evidence of such transmission on 14th January), and the day before Taiwan had its first confirmed case — Taiwan put in place their model for communication with its citizens, establishing the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) and initiating daily press briefings. The CECC is led by Chen Shih-chung, the Minister of Health and Welfare, and co-ordinates efforts across departments including transportation, economics, labour, education, and environmental protection. One of the CECC’s first major announcements, on January 24th, was to address the issue of personal protective equipment (PPE): export was banned and domestic production expanded. Having assured themselves of their domestic resources, Taiwan began donating PPE to countries around the world on 1st April.
The first daily press conference in London was on 15th March, more than a fortnight after the first confirmed case. There has as yet been no explicit redeployment of roles even among ministers, despite commentators including Tony Blair calling explicitly for this step to be taken as early as 5th April. And perhaps the less that is said about our PPE supply, the better.
All of this is dreadful, its consequences have already been tragic, and there is more that could be said. But the bigger tragedy is that we are still not watching Taiwan, and still not learning, despite the fact that they have already survived their second wave, and are already well under way with the task of finding a new and sustainable normal.
Here again there are many lessons we could learn but in which our government seems to have little interest, from the way they have managed to kick off the new baseball season to the high priority placed on controlling and punishing the deliberate spread of misinformation. The government seems at least to understand the importance of football to the national morale, but there is no indication of any understanding or will to engage with the latter challenge — something which a BBC Click investigation over the weekend flagged up very clearly to anyone inclined to hear as a loudly ticking time bomb.
There is one issue in particular, though, that really, really matters.
We need Health AND Privacy, not either/or
It is no exaggeration to say that the tools and processes we adopt to track, trace and contain Covid-19 in the next phase have the potential to define pretty much everything about the future of our world.
Whatever happens, a new level of data will be generated, shared and collected. This will be a popular step, and it needs to happen. The unwritten element of the WHO’s “Test, test, test” mantra is that it must be combined with “trace, trace, trace” — unless you know where those who have been tested are, or at least who else they come into contact with, you have very little of value.
The “whether” of this is not the critical question. The “how” is the danger — and in particular the “who”. How will this data be collected, and who will have access to it?
On the surface, the options appear for the data to lie in the hands of either government or corporate ownership, by the tech companies who build the contact tracing applications. If either is the case, the road to ruin is a very slippery one. If corporate, the incredible power already concentrated in the hands of the Apples and Googles of this world will pale into insignificance. If state, the potential is arguably even worse. As historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, wrote in the pages of the Financial Times on 20th March:
Today, for the first time in human history, technology makes it possible to monitor everyone all the time. Fifty years ago, the KGB couldn’t follow 240m Soviet citizens 24 hours a day, nor could the KGB hope to effectively process all the information gathered. The KGB relied on human agents and analysts, and it just couldn’t place a human agent to follow every citizen. But now governments can rely on ubiquitous sensors and powerful algorithms instead of flesh-and-blood spooks.
Such fears might have been dismissed a few short years ago, but in the times we live in, such abuses of the power of state and corporation are all too imaginable, especially when Covid-19 has itself increased the visibility and scale of both.
In the horns of this dilemma, Taiwan’s response has been to choose — or rather create — an entirely different path, described by Bloomberg commentator Andreas Kluth as “participatory self-surveillance”, and led by Digital Minister Audrey Tang. Tang livestreams, records and offers transcriptions of all her meetings and interviews, and has led a government effort to, in effect, partner with the entire nation. There is a central health database, but its use is both minimised and completely transparent, and is complemented with dozens of community-created, open source applications created by the cumulative effort of thousands of Taiwanese citizens and harnessing data uploaded by millions. This is Harari again, on the impact of such a system. The emphasis is mine:
If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic. Whenever people talk about surveillance, remember that the same surveillance technology can usually be used not only by governments to monitor individuals — but also by individuals to monitor governments.
In other words, out of a situation that has the all too real potential to cripple democracy, Taiwan has found a way not just to rescue but to strengthen her institutions and, crucially, her civic culture.
What is Britain doing? We know far too little, and with an NHS contact tracing app entering testing on the Isle of Wight as I write and scheduled for nationwide release within weeks, that itself is the primary cause for concern.
More answers — for example to the 20 questions posed on 28th April by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics — do not seem to be forthcoming. We know Google, Apple and Oxford University are all involved, which is not in itself a problem as big tech have been involved in Taiwan too, albeit in ways that are carefully managed and contracted. But the emphasis in government communications has been on the fact that the app will be voluntary — and this in itself is simply not good enough. Either sign up will be too low to make the measure effective, with suggestions that 60% of the population would need to be involved; or it will be voluntary in the same way as much technology, with many people entering into a contract the government has no intention of ensuring they fully understand. There is no indication that the talents of the UK’s equivalent to Taiwan’s civic tech community — which does exist, led by organisations like mySociety — have been involved in any way.
Why are we not listening?
There is a simple geopolitical answer to that question: because China doesn’t want us to. There is some truth to this. Taiwan has long been excluded from official membership of the WHO, because China’s foreign policy insists that the country is rightfully under their rule. This is a long story, and there is an important case to include Taiwan in forthcoming WHO meetings, one made forcefully by former Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the pages of Time magazine last month.
But this is not a sufficient explanation for what can only be described as wilful blindness on the part of our government in at least learning from Taiwan, if not promoting their cause on the global stage. What the Taiwanese have done is in plain sight, published and PR’ed in journals and newspapers, in the English language, all over the world. A list of 124 actions the CECC took in its first five weeks of operation was published online in English on 3rd March, almost two weeks before Boris Johnson’s first daily press conference.
Setting aside incompetence, which has clearly played a role, I believe the explanation is the same as caused our government not to call for lockdown more quickly, instead entertaining bizarre talk of herd immunity. This reason is the culture of government, a culture which fundamentally does not believe in us as citizens, and our desire and capacity to come together to help one another.
I have been following the work of Audrey Tang, the Taiwanese government, and the self-organising civic tech community which calls itself “gov zero” since the build up to the Sunflower Revolution of 2014. Back then, Tang was a hacker not a minister (though she remains a participant in gov zero), and the government had been leaning heavily to the authoritarian. Invited into government in the aftermath of the revolution, Tang has played a crucial role as a channel both to the gov zero community and to wider Taiwanese society, and she has embodied a fundamental shift in mindset and culture.
The net result is that the Taiwanese government, to put it bluntly, are working from a completely different idea of human nature, and of the role of the individual in society, to our own. The processes of dynamic participation they have created — both in response to Covid-19 and long before, as I have written elsewhere — expect people to want to shape the societies of which they are part, and to come at the task with their own ideas and inspiration, and a moral orientation that seeks the best for that society as a whole. People are conceived of as both capable of and wanting to work together shape the context of their lives for the better.
Our government has not created such opportunities because it does not see such capacity, nor such desire. They were shocked by our willingness to sacrifice in solidarity with one another, and lost in the face of the explosion of Mutual Aid groups and nationwide neighbourliness. They continue to blunder through, awkwardly clapping along every Thursday evening as we celebrate the resilience of our fellow citizens in the face of their failure.
As it stands, then, our self-obsessed ministers are not learning from Taiwan because they don’t understand it, and they don’t understand us. They think of us at best as consumers to be served, at worst as subjects to be told what to do. They certainly do not see us as the Taiwanese do, as active citizens to be equipped and empowered.
We are just starting to show them that that is exactly what we are. I hope for their sakes and ours that they learn fast — and indeed, I suggest they start by calling Taipei.
This is the first of a series of pieces I am writing off the back of this initial exploration of possible futures:
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Links to further reading are below if you want to dig deeper into this story and its context.