Leander went on an exchange programme to Taiwan in February just before borders were sealed. But the country was already preparing for the virus outbreak by the time he landed. The fast response to COVID-19 is now seen as a global best-practice model. What does it mean to study and to explore under these conditions?
On arrival, I had to fill out a health card to state which countries I had previously travelled to and whether I was showing any symptoms. There is infrared screenings at airports, in public transport or at university. If your temperature is too high, you are denied access. Now with the summer approaching, this leads to fully effects sometimes. I had a friend who wanted to board a bus and she was competely healthy. But because of those high outside temperatures, her body temperature was about 38 degrees which meant she could not get on the bus that she wanted to take, and not even the next one after that. She walked to an AC nearby to cool down a little bit and then suddenly it was fine. Sometimes I am a little worried that this might happen when I want to enter the university to give a presentation – what if this happens just before?
Yet, my interaction with the Taiwanese health authorities only started when I wanted to travel to Malaysia with my friends. I left the country on March 13th and it was already pretty empty at the airport. Our Italian friend was not even allowed to travel with us, even though he had not been in his home country for the last month. When we landed, Malaysia had a comparatively low number of cases, around 400. But on the next day, on the 14th we heard on the news that the rules had changed and that everyone with a Schengen passport had to undergo self-isolation on arrival. So we were really lucky that we had arrived a day earlier.
However, as cases were rising in Malaysia, the country imposed a total lockdown on the last day we were already leaving the country. At the same time, the government of Taiwan had put Malaysia on the list of places from where you were supposed to undergo self-health management (which means a strict quarantine) on arrival back in Taiwan. This was supposed to be put in place on Tuesday after we came back. Most of my friends arrived exactly on that day, but I had already been there since Monday. From Wednesday onwards, no foreigners were allowed to enter Taiwan anymore, so we were extremely lucky.
I had been a little worried because during our trip in Malaysia, I had started to feel feverish. Fortunately it was not extremely high so that I was able to get on the plane. Back in the student dormitory in Taiwan I suddenly felt a shortage of breath so the university advised me to go to the hospital and get tested for COVID-19. I was really nervous that I would have infected someone else as well. Just a few days before, I had met friends from my choir in Sweden who had come to visit me, so I was worried that either I had infected someone or that I would have received it from someone, because a girl on that trip had fever too. In the end, she did not seem to have the virus and my own test was negative but I had a bronchitis and I had to be hospitalised for a few days.
Since I had been travelling to Malaysia before, I was treated as a high risk patient and I was requested to vacate my room the dormitory. When that turned out to be difficult, I had to stay in the isolation ward of the hospital. But that’s probably why the numbers in Taiwan are so low – there are about 430 cases (on May 9th). There were many tests and a lot precautious isolation.
After my self-health management ended, I went to the Kenting National Park in the South of the country with my friends to celebrate my new freedom. But as we went during a national holiday on April 5th, it turned out to be very crowded. Since there had been many gatherings during the holiday, the government identified 12 especially congested zones and declared that whoever had visited those spots had to undergo another two weeks of quarantine. The Kenting National Park was one of those.
The low number of cases surely is also an expression of the strained relationship between China and Taiwan. Just at the beginning of this year, the president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen got re-elected. She is especially popular for her clear pro-independence politics. Due to these election outcomes, China restricted access to Taiwan even further so that tourism and exchange between those countries was already strained. But this was just a culmination of a trend which is already ongoing since Tsai Ing-wen got elected for the first time in 2016. Generally, if people from Taiwan want to travel to China, they have to use their identity card and not their passport, because on the passport it is written “People’s Republic of China” – which of course does not exist according to China.
Now everything is open and business as usual again. For those foreigners who are already in the country, there are hardly any restrictions. If I manage to get back to Europe by this summer, I will miss this.