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How Taiwan triumphed over Covid as the UK faltered

Along central Taipei’s busy Yongkang Street crowds spill out of restaurants and bars every evening, mingling with people queueing outside popular eateries for a tiny table to cram around with groups of friends. Children out way past their bedtime run amok over the play equipment in a nearby park, shrieking and laughing as their parents chat nearby. In London, it would be unthinkable. In the Taiwanese capital, it is just another spring evening. 

Taiwan has ridden out the coronavirus pandemic mostly unscathed, while Britain has been crippled economically and in human terms. The death, disease and mental health crises sparked by lockdown have all exacted a heavy toll. 

Both are islands ruled by democratic government, their large populations – more than 22 million people live in Taiwan – mostly crowded into cities, with public health systems that mean medical care is widely accessible. 

At the end of 2019, both were heavily exposed to travellers carrying coronavirus: Britain because of its status as an international travel hub; Taiwan because closely woven cultural and economic ties meant hundreds of planes crossed the narrow strait to mainland China – where the virus was first detected – weekly.

A little over a year later, Britain has one of the world’s worst death rates, with more than 130,000 people lost to the virus and more than 4 million people infected. Taiwan has lost 10 people, and had just 1,000 documented cases, the vast majority of them among quarantined travellers.

The root of the difference lies in the approach their governments took.

Taiwan’s leaders, helped perhaps by having an epidemiologist as vice-president, perhaps by its experience of the outbreak of the Sars coronavirus in 2003, recognised the terrible threat posed by Covid-19, even as the earliest data trickled in. They decided the only way to protect their country, its people and economy, was to keep the virus out.

Britain, by contrast, made the catastrophic decision to treat the disease as akin to flu, aiming to limit its spread rather than stamp it out, said Jay Patel, a Covid-19 researcher at Edinburgh who studies comparative approaches to the pandemic worldwide. “Their playbook to begin with was different,” he said.

“The response plan for flu is broadly mitigation [of spread], so you try to prevent the number of cases exceeding what the healthcare capacity can handle. The Sars model [used by Taiwan] is about elimination, saying because of the casualty rate, we need to suppress this disease with a view to elimination.

“We didn’t have a Sars pandemic plan, because it didn’t seem as though that would be the next pandemic, though it seems so wrong to say that now. The western world thought the next big one would be flu and focused all their attention on that.

“The warning last February was that we will have to live with it, we can’t eliminate it. Yet even then, we could see international examples of how the virus was being eliminated.” 

It is hard to compare Britain with other countries that are regarded as coronavirus success stories. China has an autocratic government able to implement sweeping and intrusive controls that would be unwanted and unfeasible in a democracy. New Zealand is a democracy, but its population is just 5 million and it is geographically remote, so the government had time to watch the pandemic unfold elsewhere before deciding how to act.

Taiwan offers a much more powerful – and bleak – comparison with the UK. Its success shows how Britain’s tragedy was never inevitable, and how lives and livelihoods might have been spared if the outbreak had been handled better by the UK government.

Taipei never needed to fall back on the UK’s most radical tool – lockdown – because it acted fast on a collection of effective policies including border controls, efficient track, trace and isolate systems, and widespread mask-wearing. 

After a two-week extension of holidays last spring, Taiwanese schools have largely opened as normal (with a few localised, temporary closures after cases were identified). Restaurants, cafes, cinemas and theatres, beaches and hotels, have continued to trade.

The economy was initially damaged by the abrupt halt to a globalised way of life, but rebounded to grow 5% in the last quarter of 2020, and is forecast to expand at a similar rate this year.

The island’s success in combating the pandemic even spurred a quarter of a million Taiwanese citizens to move back to the island.

Dr Chen Chien-jen, now a professor at the Academia Sinica genomics research centre, was Taiwan’s health minister during the 2003 Sars outbreak. That was widely seen as a disaster, but may have set the island up for its extraordinary success in handling the current pandemic.

“At the beginning of this Covid-19 outbreak, I think a lot of governments had the same challenges we had during the Sars outbreak,” Chen said. “We didn’t realise that hospital infection control is so important.” 

“The second thing is the border control … We closed our border as early as possible for Covid-19 … And the third thing is how to engage in communication to avoid disinformation. A lot of countries were not prepared for that, and this is really a pity. The fourth thing, I think, is the close contact tracing.”

It was perhaps the first government to appreciate the seriousness of the threat from the new disease. On 31 December 2019, when China reported cases of a mystery new illness to the World Health Organization, it immediately started screening travellers from Wuhan.

Taiwanese officials, although barred from the WHO, also tried to raise the alarm internationally over unofficial reports that the disease could be transmitted between humans, something not confirmed by Beijing for three more crucial weeks.

From 24 January, it closed its borders to travellers from China, then as Covid spread around the world it tightened controls to require two weeks’ strict hotel quarantine for all arrivals.

“Only a year later is the UK doing similar things, and still not with the same weight,” said Patel.

In mid-January, Taiwan activated the Central Epidemic Command Center that brought together government, academia, the medical system and the private sector in a unified fight.

Among its actions were rationing masks, so everyone in the country could access them, while stepping up production, and launching strong public communication campaigns about new controls and why they were necessary.

Even the intrusive data collection measures authorised temporarily for disease control, including using phone data for electronic “fencing” of people isolating after possible Covid-19 contact, have been widely accepted by the general public.

Late last year, Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, said polling had found high privacy concerns among 9% of the population, leading to improved information campaigns, which reduced that figure to 6%.

It all comes down to government clarity and transparency, said Chen. “You have to let the people know what the government is trying to do.”

But while the lived experience of Sars gave an urgency to Taiwan’s planning, the conclusions drawn were researched and published extensively.

There was nothing stopping the British government, or others, from learning from them in the intervening years. But perhaps because of British exceptionalism, perhaps because other coronavirus epidemics – Sars, Mers – had been contained far from Europe, the UK chose to follow its own deadly path instead. 

The American Abyss

When Donald Trump stood before his followers on Jan. 6 and urged them to march on the United States Capitol, he was doing what he had always done. He never took electoral democracy seriously nor accepted the legitimacy of its American version.

Even when he won, in 2016, he insisted that the election was fraudulent — that millions of false votes were cast for his opponent.

People believed him, which is not at all surprising. It takes a tremendous amount of work to educate citizens to resist the powerful pull of believing what they already believe, or what others around them believe, or what would make sense of their own previous choices.

Post-truth wears away the rule of law and invites a regime of myth. 

Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet. Yet so long as he was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live and die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.

Trump’s coup attempt of 2020-21, like other failed coup attempts, is a warning for those who care about the rule of law and a lesson for those who do not. His pre-fascism revealed a possibility for American politics. For a coup to work in 2024, the breakers will require something that Trump never quite had: an angry minority, organized for nationwide violence, ready to add intimidation to an election. Four years of amplifying a big lie just might get them this. To claim that the other side stole an election is to promise to steal one yourself. It is also to claim that the other side deserves to be punished. 

The American Abyss 
A historian of fascism and political atrocity on Trump, the mob and what comes next.
By Timothy Snyder

Birthday bouquet from the front garden


Reading, Beginner's Mind


This Was the Coup

There will not be a peaceful transition of power between the 45th and 46thAmerican presidents. The country’s leaders and its leading institutions—the traditional ones, not the Trump ones—spent four years promising that transition, despite everything Donald Trump might say to the contrary. It was the safe, secure alternative to other, more confrontational courses of action, the fallback plan when congressional subpoenas, judicial oversight, and even impeachment turned out to be toothless: Let the voters decide, trust the Constitution, and this will pass.


And then the doors broke down and the glass shattered and the power that their president kept invoking was loose in the halls of Congress. The Constitution was on the run, and the armed forces had a decision to make. The answer to a coup was a countercoup. Inauguration Day may still come on time, and the voters may see Joe Biden sworn in as president. But it won’t be because the system survived.

This Was the Coup

Tom Scocca . Slate

Birthday Card from Jude


I Am Greta

The story of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is told through compelling, never-before-seen footage in this intimate documentary about a young girl who has become the voice of a generation.

Starting with her one-person school strike for climate justice outside the Swedish Parliament, the film follows Greta - a shy student with Asperger’s - as she rises to prominence, and her galvanising global impact as she sparks school strikes around the world.

The film culminates with her gruelling wind-powered voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City. En route, in an intensely emotional moment, Greta reflects on the enormous toll her mission has exacted.

I Am Greta . BBC

Kings Cross


Ride A Bike


Scrambled Egg


Brexit Is Done

The world has changed radically since June 2016, when a narrow majority of people in Britain voted to leave the European Union, tempted by an argument that the country would prosper by throwing off the bureaucratic shackles of Brussels.

That was before the anti-immigrant and anti-globalist-fuelled rise of President Trump and other populist leaders who erected barriers to trade and immigration and countries turned inward. It was before the coronavirus pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of far-flung supply chains, fuelling calls to bring strategic industries back home and throwing globalism into retreat.

The Brexit agreement with the European Union comes at the very moment that President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is replacing Mr. Trump’s “America First” credo with a message of mending alliances and collaborating to tackle issues like global health and climate change.

Brexit Is Finally Done, but It Already Seems Out of Date 

Mark Landler . New York Times

The 200 million year old Ginkgo

The ginkgo is the oldest surviving tree species, having remained on the planet for some 200 million years.

The Secret That Helps Some Trees Live More Than 1,000 Years

Frosty in Goldhurst Terrace


Magnum’s moment of reckoning

In the nearly three years since the #MeToo movement transformed journalism, Magnum Photos, the world’s most prestigious photo agency, has portrayed itself as an industry leader. Magnum issued a code of conduct for its members in 2018, and its CEO boasted the same year it had not received a single complaint against any of its photographers. The agency chose women as both president and CEO, added more female photographers, and insisted it was taking harassment and abuse seriously.

But even as Magnum touted its efforts to confront the industry’s abuses, women who worked with one of the agency’s best-known photographers were telling a different story. Eleven women have described to CJR inappropriate behavior from David Alan Harvey over a span of thirteen years, ranging from suggestive comments to unwanted sexual advances to masturbating without their consent on video calls. His behavior was reported to Magnum as early as 2009, but the agency sat on the information for more than a decade. It finally took action in August of this year, but only after the allegations spilled into public: a story published on the website Fstoppers reported that Magnum was selling explicit photographs of sexually exploited minors on its website, including photographs from a series taken by Harvey in Bangkok in 1989. That led photojournalist Amanda Mustard to write a Twitter thread about Harvey, alleging that sexual misconduct allegations against him were an open secret in the industry.

Magnum’s moment of reckoning

Columbia Journalism Review 

Kristen Chick

Fairhazel Gardens


Harben Road


Belsize Road


Belsize Road


Cronyism and waste in Britain’s pandemic spending

As Britain scrambled for protective gear and other equipment, select companies — many of which had close connections to the governing Conservative Party or no previous experience — reaped billions, according to a New York Times analysis of more than 2,500 contracts.

In some cases, more qualified companies lost out to those with better political connections, which were granted access to a secretive V.I.P. lane that made them about 10 times more likely to be approved for a contract.

Conclusions: While there is no evidence of illegal conduct, there is ample evidence of cronyism, waste and poor due diligence, with officials ignoring or missing red flags, including histories of fraud, human rights abuses, tax evasion and other serious controversies. 

Waste, Negligence and Cronyism: Inside Britain’s Pandemic Spending

By Jane Bradley, Selam Gebrekidan and Allison McCann

On Vaccine Immunity

Q. Which produces a stronger immune response: a natural infection or a vaccine?

A. We don’t know, but early evidence suggests that Covid-19 vaccines may induce better immunity than natural infection. Volunteers who received the Moderna shot had more antibodies — one marker of immune response — in their blood than did people who had been sick with Covid-19. While natural immunity from the coronavirus is strong, it varies widely among people and can wane within a few months in those who had only a mild infection.

Q. I’m young, healthy and at low risk of Covid. Why not take my chances with that rather than get a rushed vaccine?

A. The experts were unanimous in their answer: Covid-19 is by far the more dangerous option. On average, the virus seems to be less risky for younger people, but that is a broad generalization. For example, in a study of more than 3,000 people, ages 18 to 34, who were hospitalized for Covid, 20 percent required intensive care and 3 percent died. Covid vaccines, in contrast, carry little known risk. They have been tested in tens of thousands of people with no serious side effects — at least so far.

Q. I had Covid. Is it safe for me to get a vaccine? If so, when can I get one?

A. Experts said that it’s safe, and probably even beneficial, for anyone who has had Covid to get the vaccine at some point. But if you’ve already had Covid-19, you can afford to wait awhile for the vaccine. Studies have shown that people who have had Covid have some level of protection during the first few months after infection. Because there is so little vaccine available at the moment, some experts think that those who have had Covid should not be in the front of the line.

Apoorva Mandavilli . New York Times