Wuhan coronavirus fear sends Taiwan into mask overdrive

Commuters are seen wearing masks in Taipei on Jan. 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Dimitri Bruyas)
Commuters are seen wearing masks in Taipei on Jan. 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Dimitri Bruyas)

TAIPEI (The China Post/ANN) — It has been 11 days since Taiwan reported its first case of novel coronavirus infection and Taiwan people still scramble to make sense of this new epidemic that brought vile memories of SARS back to life.

On the second day after the Chinese New Year holiday officially ended, face masks have already gone scarce in many cities nationwide, while some companies and private schools have decided to delay the resumption of work or school and tours to and from China have been canceled.

While the level of infection of the coronavirus has yet reached that of SARS, the country is on high alert as local residents go back to their daily commute with facial masks. In 2003, Taiwan was hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory disease that claimed more than 70 lives but demonstrated its medical expertise and skills.

Most Wear Masks Despite Ongoing Debate

On the internet, debates continue on whether or not surgical masks are effective to prevent catching any kind of viruses. Preventing disease remains much more practical and reasonable than trying to deal with it once it has happened, according to most people.

Per World Health Organization (WHO, 世界衛生組織) guidelines released on Jan. 29, however, “no evidence is available on its usefulness to protect non-sick persons” therefore “masks are not required for individuals without respiratory symptoms.”

The government has reiterated that face masks need to be prioritized for at-risk groups, namely those with respiratory symptoms, chronicle diseases, visiting the hospital, or cramped in spaces with bad air circulation.

People wearing masks line up at a bus stop in Taipei on Jan. 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Mimi Hsin Hsuan Sun.)
People wearing masks line up at a bus stop in Taipei on Jan. 31, 2020. (Courtesy of Mimi Hsin Hsuan Sun.)

On the streets, however, most people in Taipei are seen wearing masks. Top-notch restaurants are booked as usual while temperatures are taken prior to entry at some.

The annual Taipei International Book Exhibition (TIBE, 台北國際書展) that saw over 580,000 visitors was canceled by the culture ministry on Thursday, while another mass event, the Taipei International Comics and Animation Festival (台北動漫節), eventually opened today with preventative measures.

Since the government introduced a policy to control masks sells top-down, restricting the number of masks per purchase and the entities allowed to sell them, staff at many convenient stores around Taipei said that masks are usually sold out within two to three hours once they’re put on sale.

Central, Local Government at Odds on Mask Policy

The WHO declared on Friday morning (Taipei time) that the coronavirus constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).

Despite so, no ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen, Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), an epidemiologist by training, and Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), were seen wearing masks at press conferences or in public.

By contrast, the Taipei City Government ordered all employees to wear masks to work on Thursday. Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) himself and the entire task team were seen with masks at a meeting to find ways to fight the disease.

Ko Wen-je speaks at a press conference on Jan. 30, 2020. (CNA)
Ko Wen-je speaks at a press conference on Jan. 30, 2020. (CNA)

Ko told reporters on Thursday that “the following week is the most critical,” and that whether or not Taipei can get through this epidemic safely comes down to this week.

Country Unites for WHO Participation

Taiwan’s main opposition Kuomintang (KMT) voiced concerns for the country’s exclusion from the World Health Organization (WHO, 世界貿易組織) in a tweet on Jan. 30, in which the party tagged the Canadian and Japanese Prime Ministers to thank for their support.

“Amid the epidemic, Taiwan has been pulling out all the stops to obtain relevant knowledge from experts around the world despite the lack of first-hand information,” the tweet read.

“While the number of confirmed cases escalates, our participation in the WHO should be a priority and also irrelevant to any political factors, hence the KMT hereby firmly calls for the seat that we should have so that our experiences and expertise can be brought into getting the epidemic under control,” it read.