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Digital Minister On Taiwan's Handling Of The Coronavirus Pandemic


Most of the world has been living in some version of the new normal for the better part of the year. In the U.S., we are still seeing immense loss of life due to the pandemic. But the story in Taiwan is very different. According to Johns Hopkins University, just more than 500 people there have contracted the virus, and only seven have died in a population of over 23 million. As the CECC - or Taiwan's Central Epidemic Control Center - worked to contain the spread of the disease, businesses like bars, movie theaters and concert venues were allowed to continue operating. Well, one person who played a central role in Taiwan's response to COVID-19 is Audrey Tang. She's a civic hacker and Taiwan's digital minister, and she joins us now. Ni hao. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AUDREY TANG: Hello, and good local time, everyone.

CHANG: (Laughter) So how did technology play into Taiwan's strategy?

TANG: Yeah, the most important technology is definitely soap followed by alcohol hand sprays and then medical masks but also, I think, digital technologies. There was a app made by civic hackers that showed the availability of medical masks in nearby pharmacies so people don't have to queue in vain. And there's also the quarantine measures on the border. When people return to Taiwan, they can choose to go to the hotel for 14 days of physical quarantine, or they can stay in their own home if they have their own bathroom and put their phones into the digital quarantine. But either way, we pay them 33 U.S. dollars per day as a stipend. But if they break the quarantine, they pay us back a thousand times that.

CHANG: Interesting. Now, you mentioned that you enlisted the help of hackers early on. What is it about hacker culture that was particularly useful in this situation?

TANG: Yeah. A civic hacker is rather like a civil engineer only in the digital space. It's not about cybersecurity hacker. The civic hackers connects existing systems, open source, open data software in surprising ways. So, for example, when Howard Wu, the civic hacker in Tainan connected to the open street map and allow people to report where are hotspots and where not, that's a civic hacking. So I showed his work to the premier, the head of the cabinet. And he, of course, supported it and said that - OK, so from now on, all the 6,000 or more of the pharmacists can share their real-time availability just to the map.

CHANG: Now, how about contact tracing? The way I understand it, Taiwan came up with a fascinating way to enlist the cooperation of businesses that were still open - places like nightclubs, which are crowded places in normal times. How did you execute contact tracing throughout this pandemic?

TANG: Yeah. There was a case when a worker in an intimate drinking bar was diagnosed with COVID. She did not initially review the contact because of, you know, professional requirements. But, of course, that will hurt the reliable information requirement for contact tracing. And we did not, however, do any top-down, shutdown, takedown, lockdown of those places.

But rather, the people in the CECC, because they already had extensive prior experience working with HIV-positive communities - so they designed what we call a real contact system. So as long as people can be effective contacted and also social distancing requirements are met, no data is sent to the central government. And so they develop creative approaches such as leaving codenames, single-use email, pre-paid mobile phone numbers, hats with the plastic chuting to maintain physical distancing. And then they reopened.

CHANG: Ah, so people were able to preserve their anonymity and still be available to contact to figure out if they had been exposed to the virus.

TANG: Exactly right. That's exactly right.

CHANG: I know that you have attributed a lot of Taiwan's success in responding to this pandemic to establishing trust between Taiwanese people and their government. Can you talk about what you mean by trust? And how do you establish that between people and their government?

TANG: Yeah, sure. The ideas of building trust through social innovation - I summarize it in three pillars, and that's fast, fair and fun. Fast part is very easy to understand. We have the daily CECC press conferences where they answer all the questions for all the journalists. But anyone, really, who has access to a landline or a mobile phone can call 1922, the toll-free number, and get all their questions answered. But it's not just a frequently asked questions port. It also allows people to make new suggestions. For example, there was one day in April when a young boy called, saying that he doesn't want to go to school because we're rationing masks and all he got was pink medical mask. And his classmates may laugh at him.


TANG: Well, the very next day, everybody in the CECC wore pink medical mask.


TANG: And then the boy become the most hip boy because he has the color of the mask the heroes wear, and that's gender mainstreaming. So the 24-hour response cycle really important. And the fairness part not only about mask rationing but also about taking care of people who could not go to the pharmacies because they work very long hours. Well, we also designed a 24-hour preordering through mobile app as for convenience stores and so on because our national health card, which is a single-payer system, covers more than 99.99% of not just citizens but also residents. So everybody can feel calm and collected and know that they will incur no financial or social burden when they develop COVID-like symptoms and report to a local clinic.

And finally, a very cute dog - Zongchai, a shiba inu - translates all that I mentioned into very cute dog pictures - so, for example, for physical distancing, with a picture that says, if you're outdoor, please keep two shiba inus away. And if you're indoor, keep three dogs away from one another. And so that idea we're spreading just spreads much faster than conspiracy theories.

CHANG: I am all for incorporating more dogs into government messaging.

TANG: Definitely.

CHANG: Audrey Tang, civic hacker and digital minister for Taiwan, thank you very much for joining us.

TANG: Thank you, and live long and prosper.

CHANG: (Laughter) Thank you. To-siā.

TANG: To-siā.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.