How Taiwan’s Success with COVID-19 Negatively Impacts US-China Relations

A guest post today from UNC junior Morgan Hanchard, a 2019 Phillips Ambassador to Shanghai, China, and a double-major in HIstory and Peace, War & Defense:

As COVID-19 swept across the globe, its effects presented differently in differing regions.  Some countries saw lethal numbers of cases, in which population densities significantly decreased.  In some countries, the virus was tackled effectively, minimizing damage to populations.  Taiwan’s number of confirmed cases has yet to reach the 500 mark, largely due to their universal healthcare system.  To praise Taiwan for its success in handling the pandemic, the United States sent a U.S. Cabinet member to Taiwan, simultaneously hoping to learn from their “incredibly effective” response to COVID-19.  On August 10, United States Health and Human Services Secretary, Alex Azar, spent three days in Taiwan with President Tsai Ing-Wen, demonstrating Washington’s support for positive U.S.-Taiwan relations.

However, this success comes at a cost.  With tensions between the United States and China at a breaking point as President Trump continuously demonizes China, even calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus,” Azar’s trip to Taiwan cannot ignore its geopolitical intentions.  This interaction was a foreign policy rarity.  Azar is the highest U.S official to visit Taiwan since 1979, when the Taiwan Relations Act was signed into effect under the Carter Administration.  This legislation ended all diplomatic relations between the United States and Taiwan, under the terms that the United States solely recognize the People’ Republic of China, breaking ties with Taiwan completely.  By sending a delegation into Taiwan, which is not lawfully recognized by the United States, the Trump Administration is likely to spark controversy within Beijing.

On August 11, Azar spoke at National Taiwan University, where he stated that “in these trying times, the United States knows that we will always have a friend in Taiwan.”  In addition, Azar praised Taiwan’s democratic values, implying that Taiwan’s success can be contributed to its democratic society.  This statement set off anger in Beijing and amongst the Chinese Communist Party, as the U.S. gets dangerously closer to brinkmanship with China.  Azar claims that his trip was solely based on public health issues and Washington’s effort to gain insight on their treatment methods.  Even with COVID-19 in mind, the political consequences within U.S.-China relations cannot be ignored.  By ameliorating their relationship with Taiwan, Washington runs the risk of pushing tensions with Beijing to the brink. China may view Azar’s visit to Taiwan as a challenge to its sovereignty, polarizing the two sides even further.  The Trump administration is utilizing Taiwan as a strategic ploy to provoke China, which could seriously taint the bilateral relationship.

Find out more about this story at the Washington Post, CNN, or the Wall Street Journal.

Mongolia’s low COVID-19 numbers

Currently, Mongolia has one of the lowest reported cases in East Asia, with a low count of 288 total cases and zero deaths (only North Korea is lower, and only because it does not publish its numbers). This can be attributed to the decisive preventative measures adopted by the Mongolian government in early February.

Government officials canceled the national holiday Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian lunar new year, to slow travel between Ulaanbaatar and other provinces outside the capital. They also closed their borders with China and Russia and banned international flights from COVID hotspots like South Korea. The Mongolian Government was able to mobilize a task force of 832 individuals monitoring 336 checkpoints around the country in late February. This, along with Mongolia having a smaller population, allowed the task force to quickly suppress the outbreak in the country.

Some Mongolians have attributed the success and the country’s resilience to Genghis Khan. The nomadic lifestyle and lack of stress and consumerism faced in other countries is said to be because of Genghis Khan’s army’s discipline and resilience and his choice of land being “good land. And he promised that it would protect us,” said monk Ukhaanzaya Dorjnamnan.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Asian Businesses Respond to COVID-19

A guest post today from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School student Youthika Chauhan, a doctoral candidate and Graduate Phillips Ambassador for 2020, as well as a past Mahatma Gandhi Fellow through UNC Sangam and the Carolina Asia Center:

COVID-19 has created an impact on each of our lives in many different ways. But with the onset of the July, more and more countries are relaxing their measures. Several organizations have been instrumental in helping local communities to cope with the stringent legal measures. As a PhD candidate at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, I have the opportunity to study several socially impactful organizations. Many scientists, educators, and other professionals shared their insights about how their organization helped their local communities to cope with the recent difficult times. Their stories are as not only impactful but also inspirational for they symbolize the better times that lie ahead of us.

Smart Air is multi-country social enterprise based in China, India, Mongolia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Thailand and Indonesia that makes affordable air purifiers. Dhariyash Rathod, the CEO of Smart Air India shares that on the outbreak of COVID-19, Smart Air team ran tests to determine the best material suited for making DIY masks. Then, the firm shared their data, and released the “Ultimate Guide to Homemade Face Masks for Coronavirus” on their website.

Kagal Education Society, an educational non-profit based in rural India has been working on some very innovative teaching approaches. Their simple, yet effective use of technology has not only prevented the education of their students from being disrupted, but has also ensured that the educational needs of their each of their students is met even in these difficult times. According to Sharmilee Mane, Director of YD Mane Research Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (part of the Kagal Education Society), “students have goals for their studies.” Sharmilee describes how their organization makes sures that their students can accomplish all of their goals. “Our teachers deliver lectures on Zoom. They share their homework on WhatsApp with the parents. The parents then make the students complete their homework, and share it with the teachers on WhatsApp. We have been conducting classes with not more than 15 students at a time, as per the government’s regulation.” With the right use of technology, Kagal Education Society has set an example for educational institutes to follow, not only in rural India, but also in developing regions across the world.

Winkler Partners, a Taiwan-based law firm has made significant effort to ameliorate vulnerable lives impacted severely by COVID-19. James Hill, Community Coordinator at Winkler Partners shared about their work with me. “We weren’t that badly affected by COVID-19, however a lot of charities stopped supporting or providing services to the homeless because people were encouraged to not interact with each other, to be socially distant. A lot of charities, pulled out of doing the kind of on-the-ground work that they’ve been doing. So, we helped support a charity that was stepping into to provide regular meals to homeless people.”

Indeed, efforts like these allow not only organizations to be resilient in hard times, but also enable local communities to be resilient, and recover soon. While we look forward to better times, it is important to acknowledge the efforts of all those who have provided their time, resources, and efforts in dealing with the pandemic.

Taiwan’s successful approach to COVID

The world has recognized Taiwan for its effective response to the COVID outbreak. Taiwan has had a total of 446 cases and only 7 deaths as of June 20th, and has eased social distancing restrictions. Restrictions on the total number of people allowed at social gatherings and socially distanced seating arrangements have been removed. Wearing masks in public will still be required, but eating will be allowed in most instances.

Similar to Vietnam, Taiwan focused heavily on the systematic use of its digital health infrastructure after the SARS outbreak in 2003. They used effective testing, isolation, and contact tracing to control the viral spread, and with their electronic health records, they were able to reorient toward slowing the pandemic.

Every person in Taiwan has a health card with an ID unique to them so that doctors and hospitals can access online medical records. Health providers use the cards to document care for reimbursement from the Ministry of Health, which allows the ministry regular, real-time data on visits and use of services. The health card was repurposed when COVID-19 hit to stop the spread by sending physicians alerts about patients at higher risk based on travel history. This utilization allowed for better identification of candidates for testing when supplies were limited. No other society has such an effective real-time electronic heath record system, and this is one of the main attributes of Taiwan’s success, leading to the current opening.

Taiwan has allowed masks to be purchased on the free market, after they were rationed since January when the military was tasked by the government to create them. Taiwan has since exceeded 20 million in production. Many of these masks are being donated to other countries to help their fight against the virus. Whether or not the rest of the world will learn from Taiwan’s success can only be determined by the future, but in the meantime, Taiwan’s aid during this crisis has not gone unnoticed.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Preparation for the second wave

Since the virus’ first appearance in China late last year, over 8 million people have been infected, and almost 450 thousand have died due to the virus around the world. While some countries have had fewer cases over the course of their lockdown, experts are warning about the imminent possibility of a second wave. Countries across East Asia are trying to stave off a bloom in case numbers.

Fukuoka, a major city in Japan, reported no new cases from the end of April to May 22nd, but since then the city has reported 119 cases from May 25th to June 2nd, putting the city on the front line of the country’s second wave of infections. In Tokyo, 34 new cases were recorded on June 2nd, which is the first time the daily number of infections have risen above 30 since May 14th. These small surges in case were anticipated, and while there is no imminent state of emergency, “the bottom line is that we must quickly move to respond to the situation and to avoid the further spread of the disease by identifying the chains of transmission,” according to Dr. Shigeru Omi.

Recently in Beijing, there have been 27 new infections, many of which were linked back to a wholesale food market (Xinfadi in the Fentai district). This discovery has sparked mass testing and surrounding neighborhood lockdowns. The number has since spiked to 106 confirmed infections. “The epidemic situation in the capital is extremely severe,” said Beijing city spokesman Xu Hejian.

South Korea’s health authorities also report being in the midst of a “second wave” around Seoul because of the small, persistent outbreaks taking place in May, and while the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) has said that South Korea’s first wave hadn’t really ended, KCDC director Jeong Eun-kyeong has said that the holiday weekend in early May marked the beginning of a new wave of infections. “In the metropolitan area, we believe that the first wave was from March to April as well as February to March,” Jeong said, “then we see that the second wave which was triggered by the May holiday has been going on.”

In February, South Korea reported a peak of over 900 cases a day, and ever since, intensive tracking and testing reduced the case numbers to single digits by late April. In early May, however, with the celebration over holiday weekend in Seoul and eased social distancing guidelines, new cases spiked, pushing forward the anticipated second-wave.

Author: Camryn Thomas

South Korea’s response to COVID-19, with Prof. Ji-Yeon Jo

The Carolina Asia Center’s director, Prof. Ji-Yeon Jo, was interviewed by the department chair of Asia and Middle East Studies, Prof. Morgan Pitelka (also a former CAC director) about the way that South Korea has managed its response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. This video interview comes from the DAMES series “Forty for Forty.”

Japan’s Preparation for Second Wave

Public officials and private companies across Japan are working on ways to prepare for a second wave of coronavirus infections. Currently, there have been over 17,000 people who have tested positive, and over 900 people have died in the country.

This preparation includes the addition of another 18 countries to Japan’s entry ban list, expanding the list from 111 to 129. While Japan adds countries such as Cuba and Lebanon, they consider easing the entry ban for Thailand, Australia, and another two nations.

The country tries to boost testing numbers as companies work together to speed up the manufacturing process for test kits. Fujirebio, along with two major electronics firms, will help expand capacity to create its nation tests. These kits can identify an infection much faster than PCR tests, with results in around 30 minutes. Toshiba will provide assistance and space to make the kits, while Hitachi will help make the process more efficient.

Japanese lawmakers will soon begin debating a new supplementary budget this week to support the government’s fight against coronavirus of which will include a reserve fund worth $91.5 billion. Half of this proposed money would go toward protecting jobs, supporting people in need, and helping local governments boost their medical systems, but there is opposition as some lawmakers feel that the government shouldn’t be given such a large “blank check.”

Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has pledged $300 million to help an international organization develop a vaccine. This is an additional $200 million from last month’s pledge. Abe has said, “The development of vaccines is in progress, collecting all the wisdom of humans […] we need to be well prepared to deliver them speedily to developing countries once they become available.”

Japan’s health ministry has laid out a plan designed to shorten the time needed to put coronavirus vaccines into practical use and speed up the process by simultaneously promoting both research and development and its production.

The health ministry has earmarked about $455 million, as subsidies to institutions involved in vaccine development in the proposed second supplementary budget for the fiscal year, and also about $1.3 billion in the extra budget to encourage private companies to invest in production facilities.

It normally takes a few years to develop and mass produce a vaccine, but the ministry’s officials say the hope to reduce the time substantially, and to start vaccinating the public in the first half of next year.

Author: Camryn Thomas

Hong Kong Tiananmen Vigil banned on “health grounds”

About 2,000 riot officers will be deployed on Hong Kong Island while another 1,000 will be in other districts, such as Mong Kok.

Over 3,00 riot officers will be deployed today, Thursday, June 4, to enforce the ban against the annual candlelight vigil, commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre (a student-movement resulting in the deaths of hundreds). This will be the first time in 30 years that  people have not been allowed to gather.

The ban was enforced on “health grounds,” however, it was also said by police that those who split into smaller groups would still be breaking the law. This warning of heavy police came as organizers of the rally at Victoria Park said they planned to go regardless, in groups of eight or less, the limit due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Roughly 2,000 of the riot officers will be deployed on Hong Kong Island with two water cannons stationed at the government headquarters in Admiralty. The remaining 1,000 officers will be based in other districts with another water cannon in West Kowloon.

Organizer Lee Cheuk-yan said that he expected police to issue them fines for breaching the eight-person limit by factoring in the people around them, as they used as similar strategy for the May 1st Labor Day demonstration. He questioned, however, how the authorities could conclude that all those attending the vigil at Victoria Park would be gathering for the same purpose. “I could be commemorating the mother of a Tiananmen Square victim. Another person could be thinking about resistance,” he said.

Police have also banned the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood from holding a separate vigil on Thursday evening in Sham Shui, rejecting their appeal on Wednesday. Barrister Anson Wong Yu-yat said the police interpretation on group gatherings was debatable as “No one can say with certainty whether the court will regard to or more groups of eight protestors physically assembling in a place, while keeping one and a half meter distance between each group […] constituting a prohibited group gathering.”

Breaking the social distancing rules has a fine of HK$2,500 (US$258) for participants and GK$25,000 and six months jail-time for organizers. To avoid these fines, and other possible ramifications, the Alliance will also be holding online tributes for those world-wide to participate.

The way that Hong Kong (and more widely the People’s Republic of China, which is exercising increased authority over this territory) is dealing with protests and questions of health in a time of pandemic can function as an interesting comparison for cases of protests and mass gatherings in other parts of the world also still buffeted by COVID-19. The government’s use of public health guidance to manage non-health-related policy issues also raises questions.

Author: Camryn Thomas

COVID 19’s Religious Consequences in Singapore

Due to COVID-19, Singaporeans have been navigating religious aspects of quarantine since early April, when the Singapore Christian community had to experience Good Friday and Easter Sunday differently than usual. The Muslim community, knowing it would have to experience Ramadan differently this year as well, shared sympathies with the Christian community, most notably in a letter of encouragement written by the Mufti of Singapore, Nazirudin Mohd Nasir.

Since then, places of worship have been closed in order to help prevent the spread of the virus, making it difficult for citizens to continue religious practices. As Singapore entered Phase 1 of its “circuit breaker” on June 1st, the Archbishop of Singapore announced that Catholic churches would not reopen. Weeks after the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) publicized the required measures religious organizations must take before opening for private worship, Archbishop Williams stated caution was a part of “pastoral responsibility.” He also shared that the decision was made after the Roman Catholic Archdiocese studied the restrictions and requirements and consulted with parish priests.

Weddings, funeral services, and wakes with no more than 10 people present can still place, while abiding by the restrictions and requirements set by the ministry. The archdiocese is “looking forward to opening [its] churches for private prayer and adoration” under Phase 2, when some requirements are relaxed.

Mosques, however, were open to provide limited prayer spaces for private worship startin June 2nd. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) said the mosques would be reopened with “maximum precautionary measures” in Phase 1. The mosques will be open for limited hours with limited marked prayer zones, each accommodating up to five individuals at a time. MUIS has urged the community to give priority to mobile workers who are unable to perform prayers at a fixed workspace, while recommending that those who are young, elderly, those especially vulnerable to infection, and those with the ability to perform their worship at home to do so. Singapore is somewhat unique in its ability to regulate mosques in this way, since they operate under the umbrella of government-backed MUIS instead of as fully-independent local congregations.

Regular disinfection of common spaces, physical and temperature checks, as well as the national SafeEntry system are a few of the ways mosques are implementing safety. Others include requiring face masks, avoiding inter-mingling with others at the mosques, refraining from physical contact with greetings, and each worshiper bringing personal items instead of sharing communal ones.

The Muslim community also hopes to open for for congregational prayers and other activities during Phase 2, “as such, we urge the community to work closely with mosque leaders to continue to curb the spread of the virus by adopting the necessary precautions when visiting our mosques, and to visit mosques during this period only when necessary.”

Singaporean Hindu temples will carry on similarly to mosques with the amount of people allowed at funerals and marriages, as well as regarding SafeEntry and temperature checks. Some temples will require pre-booking to be allowed inside to use services. Devotees without booking are allowed to pray from the entrance however.

Devotees will not be allowed to stay in the temples for prolonged periods or consume any of the blessed foods within. Temples will not offer Theertham, Vibhuthi, Kumkumam, or Thulasi in the hands of a devotee, nor will there be any Safari blessing done. Kalanji and/or Prasadam may be provided with minimum contact.

But what is the largest religious community in Singapore, the followers of Buddhism, doing to continue their practice despite COVID-19? Like many other religious groups, the Buddhist community in Singapore is turning to online gatherings. Buddhist temples have come up with innovative ways to continue their spiritual practices like hosting guided meditation sessions, chanting and observing other rituals online.

To make offerings, devotees can make online accounts to donate directly to the temple and pay for items. The site has offered helpful information for staying safe during the “circuit breaker” as well as videos on how to cook vegetarian dishes, and sharing photos of their preparation of Vesak Day (celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha). The Vesak Day procession, where typically thousands of Buddhists walk and bow around the Kong Men San Phor Kark See Monastery, was instead held though a Zoom session and live-streamed on the Buddhist Youth Network Facebook page.  Over 30 Buddhist families participated in performing this ritual at home together on this Zoom call, inspiring hundreds of others.

As debates rage in the United States and around the world about the best way to manage religious obligations and personal freedoms for the practice of religion even in a time of pandemic, the Singaporean case of regulation across a number of different world faiths can prompt reflection on the balance between personal devotion and community safety.

Author: Camryn Thomas

China’s President Xi Jinping backs WHO-led International Investigation into COVID Origins

News programs showing China's President Xi Jinping speaking via video to the WHA aired on big screen on Beijing street.

On Monday, May 18, 2020, China’s President Xi Jinping delivered a speech via video backing a WHO-led investigation into the origins of COVID-19, after weeks of opposing the United States’ proposal into said investigation. After Russia, Turkey, and other European and African countries began to support Western inquiries about the virus’ origins, drafts of the suggested resolution focused toward international collaboration on managing the pandemic. Among these countries is also Australia, which China threatened with a boycott of Australian-made products after that country suggested that the WHO should be able to dispatch investigators to emergency sites within China. Some of these threats have been acted on; Australia has since had its beef imports cut and 80 percent tariffs imposed on its barley.

Xi pledged $2 billion in relief aid over two years to help countries in response to the pandemic, as well as an independent evaluation into their response when the pandemic comes to an end. The $2 billion is not currently designated to any particular recipient; however, this amount would eclipse the $893 million the US committed to contributing over 2018 and 2019. Current aid from the US toward the WHO budget has been frozen since April.

The European Union’s draft resolution, supported by over 100 countries, did not mention Wuhan or China, simply asking the WHO to identify the source and route of introduction to humans. The document also ruled out the possibility that the virus was manufactured, as proposed by US officials. 

Information in this post was gathered from the Washington Post article found here, written by Gerry Shih, Emily Rauhala, and Josh Dawsey.

Author: Camryn Thomas