School News
American teacher in Taiwan discusses that country's response to COVID-19
By Neff Blackmon
Aug 7, 2020
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It is 6:30 in the morning and I gaze back to the east, watching the sun rise over the mountains. Seeing the ranges differentiated by the clouds passing between them has become a favorite morning ritual. A less than favorite ritual is placing my surgical mask in a cloth sleeve before securing it around my ears followed by putting on surgical gloves. Though only the mask is required, the extra effort: the gloves, the sleeve, etc… are simply added insurance. You see, I am an American English teacher in Taiwan and we are in the middle of a pandemic. I have been asked to compare the approach we make in Taiwan to what is occurring in my home state of Texas.

5th grade, English class

 
I know that comparing 2 different countries, (just for grins I’m looking at Texas as a country), and 2 different cultures, can take on a bit of apples vs. oranges argument; however, it is important to recognize that both locales have virtually the same population: Texas 30 million and Taiwan 24 million. In addition, these 30 million Texans reside in a state that is 268,580 square miles in size compared to Taiwan that is only 13,000 square miles. If I wanted to quibble, I could add that there is a mountain range that runs down the middle of Taiwan effectively reducing the “livable space” in half, but I won’t do that. I could say that the west coast of Taiwan is only 80 miles from China, the source of Covid-19, while the “west coast” of Texas is quite a bit farther. But I digress.

Now let’s take a look at some numbers that will be ugly by comparison. The first number is 7. That’s how many Covid-19 deaths have been reported in Taiwan— I’ll say that again, seven. I am writing this on August 1st so the next number unfortunately will have gone up, but that one is 6,837. Despite having virtually identical populations that’s how many deaths have been reported today in Texas.

So how did a country that’s less than 1/20th the size of Texas effectively deal with an airborne virus? To put it simply: history and education.

In 2003 another novel coronavirus that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome struck the world. More commonly known as SARS, it, too, proceeded with unprecedented rapidity overwhelming many hospitals and health systems. In Taiwan, 668 cases were reported with 181 proving fatal. Among the dead were a high number of doctors and other health care workers. Taiwan’s Department of Health initiated a system involving a Task Force committee that would develop a protocol to deal not only with SARS but the next pandemic that might be around the corner. You might call this a “playbook”, policies and procedures that could instantly mobilize the nation in the face of a coming catastrophe. History doesn’t always have to repeat itself.

As for the educational aspect of it all, it’s worth noting the rather large cultural difference that plays into that “apples and oranges” thing I mentioned earlier. Education in Taiwan is important. Like, REALLY important. The literacy rate in Taiwan is 99% with the majority of the population being bi-lingual. Our current President has her doctorate from the London School of Economics. The president prior to her has a Juris Doctorate from Harvard. The man that opened the door to democracy, President Lee, has a Master’s from Iowa State and a PhD from Cornell.

Primary school (K-6th grades) begins around 7-7:30am. The students arrive long before school “officially” starts to receive extra tutoring if needed and to complete their assigned responsibilities. These include mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets (yep), raking leaves, washing windows etc. etc. etc.

5th grade, English class

School runs from approximately 8:40-4pm. At lunch, designated students from each class bring the large containers of food to the classroom. There are no lunch rooms. After lunch everyone cleans their own kits then brushes their teeth. Right or wrong this is the culture in place.

So how does this impact our response to Covid-19? In light of the place education holds within Taiwanese hierarchy of values, there is great, collective, reverence for science and those appointed leaders who mandate masks and social distancing based on scientific research and evidence.

5th grade, English class

We first became aware of Covid when we began to hear rumblings that something was rotten in the state of Wuhan. Intelligence agencies had been reporting for some time that local Chinese infections were spiking. We canceled our winter plans for Japan just in case. I received a call from my boss asking me if I had been to Wuhan. Then I was told that our winter break would be extended 2 extra weeks. International flights were stopped. Citizens returning from abroad were immediately quarantined at government expense. Contact tracing went into effect. Masks were required in all public areas. Temperatures were taken before entering any public building, and most private ones. Social distancing was implemented in restaurants and stores.

For Taiwan, this was a “we” program. “We” had to make smart choices to push the curve down. “We” also endured the sacrifices: missing the birth of a child; not being able to be with loved one’s at their passing. You know the drill. But by taking these measures early and often “we” were left with that aforementioned number: 7.

So here I am, walking to the bus stop, wearing a mask and gloves. The humidity in Taiwan transports me back to my birthplace of Fort Worth, Texas—but the weather is where the similarities end for the two places I call home.

When I arrive at school, my temperature will be taken and my hands sprayed with alcohol, and I won’t complain because “we” are all in this together. Before the start of class, all chairs, desktops, light switches, door knobs—anything that is touched—will be disinfected. My students will line up outside my door and we will march down the hall to wash our hands. We will do this after every class. In addition to their masks, they will wear a card signifying the dates and their temperatures. Their temperature will be taken periodically throughout the day and their cards will be updated subsequently.

Once they have removed their shoes and bowed to me in unison (try that in America), I’ll begin the day’s lesson; which, today, just so happens to be titled, “What did the Fox say?” I will proceed to sing and dance like a crazy person, and I will do so for the next five periods. My mask will get unbelievably soggy with the bonus feature of getting to smell my own breath after multiple cups of coffee. This will make a beautiful pairing with my bleach-soaked hands. This is my day, and tomorrow, and the next, but . . . 7.

5th grade, English class

 My principal requested I create an English lesson dealing with Covid-19. I have included the poem.

COVID-VIRUS 

I go to school

I ain’t no fool

I know about the virus.

Walk down our halls

Upon the walls

Are posters that inspire us.

We wear a mask

We wash our hands

These tasks they will not tire us.

Nurse Grace has said

“Get it in your head”

“We have to kill the virus.”

Everyday

Before we play

Our temperature is taken

We hope the sun

Will warm us soon

And the virus will be bakin’.

I ride the bus

Or take the train

I need to be protected.

‘Cause if I’m not

I run the risk

That I might become infected.

The alcohol

The stinky bleach

All this is necessary

The actions that we take today

Will make this much less scary