Tsai discusses lessons learned from 2003 SARS hospital lockdown

(CNA file photo)

TAIPEI (CNA) — On the 17th anniversary of a lockdown imposed on a Taipei hospital amid a severe SARS outbreak, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) on Friday urged unity between the government and society to combat the spread of the COVID-19 conoravirus, which first appeared in Wuhan, China in December.

“If SARS taught the Taiwanese anything, the lesson was that we should be more united and set aside our political differences in the face of epidemics,” Tsai said in a Facebook post.

“The central and local governments and the people should work together to fight epidemics,”she wrote.

The sudden closure of Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital on April 24, 2003 amid the SARS outbreak, with more than 1,000 medical staff, patients, their relatives and others inside, triggered widespread panic across the country, she recalled.

During the two-week lockdown, 57 medical personnel and 97 visitors were infected with the SARS coronavirus at the hospital due to what was widely believed to be a lack of auxiliary measures. Seven medical staff and 23 members of the public died from the epidemic and one committed suicide.

The experience of SARS taught us that “disaster can befall our country if the government does not do enough to protect public health, and if communication between the central and local authorities is not good enough, leading to bad decision-making,” she said.

Reminding the public not to forget the sacrifice made by medical personnel across the nation at that time, Tsai said Taiwan now faces a new coronavirus “threat” and expressed her hope that Taiwan will navigate through the difficulty and become a role model for the whole world.

Echoing Tsai’s comments, Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), attributed the losses from SARS to a series of missteps on the part of the government in a post on his Facebook page.

Long-term negligence of the public health system, a lack of adequate training of medical stuff, backward laws as well as the lack of an emergency action plan and public unawareness of the importance of public hygiene all contributed to the spread of SARS (from 2002-2003), said Chen, an epidemiologist by profession.

What made things worse was that the government was unable to communicate properly and fully coordinate its anti-virus efforts following the outbreak, he said.

Chen, then head of the Cabinet-level Department of Health (now the Ministry of Health and Welfare), said that after the SARS outbreak ended the government quickly began to re-build Taiwan’s public health sector, educate the public, increase awareness and improve responsive mechanisms in the event of a future outbreak.

Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍), a cabinet spokesman in 2003, said the establishment of the Central Epidemic Command Center and the National Health Research Institutes is evidence of the government’s improved virus control efforts.

“Taiwan’s fragility at the time of SARS pushed us to build the comprehensive public health system we see today,” he said.