The Complacent Americans: COVID-19 from a Taiwanese’s Perspective

On a Tuesday morning last March, I woke up wondering what all the fuss outside my dorm was about. I wasn’t used to waking up without my phone. As I turned over to deactivate my alarm, I saw an email notification sent on 8:48 AM, March 10th, telling me to move out of my dorm within five days. I groaned at the logistical nightmare, but deeply inside actually felt a sense of relief.

As with many international students at Harvard, I spent the rest of Tuesday checking airplane ticket prices, coordinating with my friends to store my belongings, and making a list of errands to finish and documents to process before leaving the US. Messages asking if I were ok flooded my SMS, Facebook Messenger, Instagram DMs, GroupMe, and email inboxes. I also allocated some time to grab meals with friends that I wanted to meet before going back home. I kept myself busy and composed, and it was not until the last day students were allowed to stay on campus — Sunday — when our dorm started to empty that I realized it would be six months later the next time I see the same view. My roommates joked that freshman seems like a long summer camp.

That was March 15th, when the US only had 3,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Now, there are 312,245 cases, as of April 4th, according to the John Hopkin’s database.

Rewind to February, 29. There were 68 cases in the US. My parents alerted me that the situation in the US will be “unpredictable” and “it seems like the US is treating the virus-like the flu”. I quickly dismissed the idea, thinking that in a country as scientifically advanced as the US, the virus shouldn’t become uncontrollable, right? Life would carry on as normal as individual cases are isolated. At the time, the CDC recommended against wearing a facemask if you are well, which signaled to me that COVID-19 wasn’t that contagious. I didn’t see anyone having fevers or shortnesses of breath beside me so I should be fine. The virus still appeared to me as “something that’s happening abroad”. Moreover, the Harvard bubble created a sense of security that even if the virus hits campus, the world’s best school with one of the best public health programs in the US would know how to act and keep us away from the virus. Some events were being canceled and postponed, which were seen as mere inconveniences, while classes slowly moved online. A freshman even went on creating a petition to get housing day back. Even after the college told everyone to move out, many students on campus still partied.

It was when I read the symptoms of all COVID-19 patients in Taiwan that I realized matters were much worse than I thought. Most of the people who tested positive did not have any symptoms at all. Many more did not even have a fever. I also sensed the severity of the situation from the government via Line, a messaging platform primarily used in Japan and Taiwan, who provided me daily updates on cases in Taiwan, including patients’ symptoms and travel locations. The updates also summarize new policies and fake news found on the internet. Once, the commander in charge of dealing with COVID-19 cried in the daily press conference.

Back in Taiwan, sometimes I don’t even feel welcome. As most cases in Taiwan are imported from abroad (about 9 out of 10 cases the past week), Taiwanese people see us, international students, as the main possibility of the virus entering Taiwan and creating an uncontrollable pandemic. People who traveled for leisure during these times, taking advantage of the cheap plane tickets, are strongly condemned. One media proposed to bar all flights from entering Taiwan. My father, receiving me at the airport told me to move my luggage, as he didn’t want to take any chances. I currently live in another apartment, away from my parents.

From a Taiwanese’s perspective, the US failed in conveying the severity of the situation to the general public, causing the US to become the country having the most COVID-19 cases in the world. During the time I was at Harvard, almost all the information I received ended in the like of “but you shouldn’t be too concerned as long as you don’t have symptoms and wash your hands”. Young college students booked even more plane tickets to travel since they were cheaper than usual. Even now, as the CDC recommends usage of face-coverings, President Donald Trump said he would not use one himself. Still not all states are in lockdown, which Bill Gates put as “a recipe for disaster”. Italy started with the leader “urging people ‘not to change [their] habits’”. Even though I’ve heard things like “Harvard professor estimates that 70% of Americans would get COVID-19!”, I did not feel the situation was as severe. My roommates and I treated the message as a joke.

The key is a collaborative effort to be vigilant. Though the editorial board previously argued that COVID-19 patients privacy should be protected, I think basic medical information such as symptoms and travel history should be revealed. This helps the public recognize the severity and self-diagnose if they might have COVID-19. People would be more willing to stay at home, understanding the risks involved, and be more cautious. Deeply inside, I didn’t trust the US’s response to COVID-19. Trust comes from transparency and the government using genuine evidence and data to reassure the public. This is why I felt a sense of relief, as another person did from the UK, when we had to go back to Taiwan.

As the US downplays the severity and accuses China of creating the “Chinese virus”, how is the US different from China accusing the US as being a plausible originator of COVID-19 and understating their total infections? We have to be aware of the frog in boiling water. As the world is changing ever more rapidly, we need to adapt faster. Collectively. COVID-19 already illustrated how hard it is to change quickly together, but climate change is an even more difficult global collaboration issue. And the only way to do so is to create genuine trust and evaluate situations as a matter of fact. Not by ideologies, not by beliefs, but simple facts.


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