Covid 19 coronavirus: David Seymour – Why our pandemic response can and should be like Taiwan’s

OPINION

Jamie Morton’s report (Three reasons we can’t be Taiwan, March 5), is welcome because it compared our Covid response with the best. This is the way to set expectations, not self-serving comparisons with the worst, such as Friday’s mysterious prime ministerial mediation on France.

The article rightly acknowledged Taiwan’s exceptional Covid response. They achieved 12 times fewer deaths per capita than us, without lockdowns. This despite being as close to China as Whangārei is to Auckland, and with a population density nearly 40 times ours.

Where the article could be improved is removing the word “can’t”. None of the three reasons raised mean we can’t, it should have said “haven’t”. Indeed, the article was filled with examples of why we should be emulating Taiwan.

The first reason given for why we can’t be Taiwan is that they’re too far ahead, and we can’t catch up. In particular it had a purpose-built Central Epidemic Command Centre that swung into action months before we went “hard and early”. This was created in response to the Sars epidemic of 2009.

The best time to start improving a situation is often 10 years ago, but the next best time is now. What’s more, it’s not as though nobody in New Zealand has held up the Taiwanese example before. We could have started a year ago.

I hosted a public Zoom discussion with Jeff Lieu, of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, to learn how Taiwan did it. That was last April. Act’s policy called for a Taiwan-style Epidemic Response Unit in August. The Simpson-Roche Report made a similar call in September.

That water’s gone under the bridge now. But there are no excuses for not designing and establishing our own specialised multi-disciplinary Epidemic Response Unit immediately. If the debacle of miscommunication and miscoordination surrounding the Valentine’s Day outbreak isn’t the catalyst we need, nothing will be.

Such a unit could work more collaboratively with all government departments and the private sector, make clearer rules, and adopt technology faster. These are all things the Government’s response needs, but the Ministry of Health is not used to.

The other objections were that New Zealanders will not wear masks and won’t accept Taiwanese-style digital record keeping and contact tracing, because of privacy concerns.

They are both versions of the same argument: New Zealanders are not prepared to make sacrifices for the common good like the Taiwanese are. People making such arguments are guilty of mis-caricaturing both countries and their Covid responses.

Taiwan is ranked by Freedom House as having civil liberties and political rights equivalent to Germany’s, and a point better than the UK. Nobody ever says “oh but we have a freer society than the Brits, we’d never tolerate that”, but we casually assume the Taiwanese are authoritarian. How curious.

Meanwhile, how easily did New Zealanders abandon human decency, in fear, last March? We left women sobbing alone in spartan hospital rooms after miscarrying. Their intimate partner’s presence would have breached Covid rules.

From the podium, the police chief menacingly and sarcastically tried to scare law-abiding citizens, with the Prime Minister’s complicity. The Government set up a website inviting citizens to snitch on each other, which many enthusiastically did. Reflecting on those weeks is petrifying.

As the article noted, I’m nothing if not a civil libertarian. However, it’s not obvious that Taiwan’s regime of sophisticated digital record keeping and contact tracing impairs freedom more than our record of blunt and economically devastating restrictions enforced in a climate of fear.

So far, we haven’t even had that conversation. When we do, we should remember Google and Facebook, Vodafone, and Apple already have most of our data.

Let’s have the conversation. Let’s talk about Taiwan. The question is not “can our Covid response be like Taiwan’s?” It can. It is not “should it be like Taiwan?” It should. The question is, when will the Government reset its attitude and seriously upgrade its response?

David Seymour is the leader of Act and the MP for Epsom.

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