As the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed unprecedented social and economic disruptions worldwide, 2020 has been a challenging year for most people. The SARS-CoV-2 has caused human suffering of unimaginable magnitude globally.
Taiwan, a self-governing island of 23.5 million people, has grabbed the world’s headlines with its relative success at containing the coronavirus. As of April 17 of this year, Taiwan has a record of 1072 cases - a majority of which are imported - and 11 deaths.
Much has been written and reported about Taiwan’s pandemic response. This piece examines a critical aspect of the Taiwanese approach to the health crisis: the use of digital tools to support the pandemic response. Specifically, the challenges and advantages of integrating digital tools as part of Taiwan’s pandemic management and response.
Digital Solutions to Stem the Health Crisis
Since the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Taiwan, the government has introduced various innovative digital tools to enhance its pandemic management across different social spheres. The use of digital tools includes implementing mobile apps to distribute accurate, real-time health information; tracking individuals subjected to home quarantine; facilitating international border control by requiring inbound passengers to share their travel history before arrival; and, most recently, surveilling potential adverse effects after vaccination.
The allure of digital tools in reducing human contact and administrative costs is attractive to many public health officials, who have often needed to act under time pressure and, sometimes, with scientific uncertainties during the pandemic. Insofar as pandemic management is a race against time, digital technology can enhance the traditional approach to public health.
The Engagement of an Active Civil Society
Social acceptance of digital tools is another critical ingredient for its success. Before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society participated in the open government movement, wherein political participation of technology-savvy individuals held the government accountable through open data. This cemented the public's general familiarity with digital tools and had clear digital dividends for Taiwan.
The government has engaged with the public through various social media channels to build trust and cooperation. Incorporating insights from behavioral economics, the government seeks "humor over rumor" to dispel misinformation relating to the pandemic. For instance, to discourage toilet paper hoarding, Premier Su Tseng-chang urged the public that "we only have one butt" on his social media account. The cheeky but compelling message was well-received.
Likewise, the government is able to reach different sectors of the population through various digital platforms. LINE, a popular mobile app in Taiwan, has 21 million users, 24% of which are 50 and above. Strikingly, this age group is also the most active in reporting misinformation and seeking clarifications.
A Shadow over Individual Rights?
However, like in other countries, the expansion of public powers in the digital realm raises fundamental concerns over digital security, privacy, and ethical questions. For instance, to deter individuals subjected to home quarantine from attending New Year’s Eve parties, the government warned that it had an "eye in the sky" to track individuals who violated their stay-at-home order. The announcement provoked public outcry as it invoked Big Brother's imagery and summoned the ghost of Taiwan's authoritarian past. The government later apologized for its inaccurate description of the use of such technology. While the government remains reluctant to reveal how it tracks individuals who violate quarantine orders, it has promised to demonstrate how the technology is used once the world goes back to normal.
Notably, despite Taiwan’s relative success in its pandemic containment, the tension between privacy rights and the protection of public health remains. Like elsewhere, the increased use of digital tools as part of the pandemic management and response have blurred the line that separates the public and private spheres. The question around how we will redefine the permissible boundaries of public power as SARS-CoV-2 is likely to become an endemic disease - meaning that the virus will keep circulating among the population- remains pressing. A successful pandemic response in liberal democracies is contingent on trust, transparency, and accountability. As such, the allure of digital solutions cannot dwarf democratic principles.
As the government recently introduced Taiwan V-Watch, an online surveillance initiative to track adverse reactions to vaccinations, the program's success relies on the willingness of public buy-in. Simultaneously, the initiative is a welcome public-private partnership, wherein the government has partnered with a technology company in devising the tracking program, but an equally robust regulatory environment that protects privacy and data security remains critical.
Though the pandemic has resulted in human suffering at a catastrophic scale, it also offers an opportunity to critically examine lessons learnt from different jurisdictions to better prepare for the next global health threat.