Amid Taiwan’s Success in Fighting COVID-19, A Tinge of Bitterness

I recently posted a photo on Instagram of my family celebrating my youngest daughter’s birthday at one of her favorite restaurants, Saffron 46, enjoying crispy samosas and scallops in curry while the Taipei 101 skyscraper was twinkling in the background.

A friend in New York commented: “Wow, you get to go out to eat in Taiwan? Or is this a memory? Sitting in a restaurant seems like such an exotic activity right now.”

Once again, I felt a deep privilege for being able to live and work in Taiwan. I seized the opportunity to promote Taiwan, explaining how it has done better than any other country fighting the virus. Now, the Taiwanese are helping the world by donating millions of masks to the U.S., Europe, and its diplomatic allies. I only wish the U.S. could come close to doing so well.

It’s a story I’ve been telling all my friends and family overseas. Expats like me are often Taiwan’s best brand ambassadors as we share our passion for this island with a global network of key influencers. If we could calculate the ad value, it would be in the billions. Few other countries need such advocates more than this nation, due to its diplomatic isolation.

However, it pains me to say that the COVID-19 crisis is leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of some of Taiwan’s most supportive expats. These are people who have lived here for years. They’ve started businesses, created jobs, and paid taxes. They’ve married Taiwanese and have been warmly welcomed into families here. They’re staunch supporters of Taiwan and advocate for this special place whenever and wherever they can. 

But at times during this crisis, the government’s actions have reminded them of their second-tier status here. This is especially the case with face masks – an issue that has become extremely sensitive and politically charged.

One AmCham member contacted me to express frustration with not being allowed to send face masks to his brother in the U.S. Only Taiwanese could send a limited number of masks overseas, and then only to their Taiwanese relatives. So not even this AmCham member’s Taiwanese wife could send masks to her American brother-in-law in the Midwest.

“It appears the Taiwan government doesn’t consider foreign marriages and family to be as real as those between Taiwan nationals,” the member told me. “My brother is my wife’s brother-in-law. Her family, too, is my family, and if they needed masks while I was in the U.S., I would have no problem sending them some. However, right now that is not the case for Taiwan, despite all the positive press the Taiwan government is seeking.”

The government’s COVID-19 policies have also affected my family. My oldest daughter, who graduates from college this month in the U.S., planned to do what many of her Taiwanese peers will do: Temporarily move back home with her parents as she searches for a job. But Taiwan’s new visa rules won’t let her return “home.” So, as a recent grad with no income, she’ll have to find a place to stay in the U.S. until the pandemic is over – or when Taiwan eases its visa restrictions.

Few things are worse than worrying about loved ones and feeling helpless.

Another AmCham member and longtime resident of Taiwan shared a more remarkable story. He was visiting the U.S. in January when it looked like COVID-19 might hit Taiwan hard. Concerned about protecting his Taiwanese employees at his company, he started stocking up on face masks to take back to Taiwan to give to his staff. He bought the best ones he could find – P95s.

When he returned to Taiwan, he discovered two things: 1) His employees already had enough masks, and they thought the P95s were too heavy-duty to wear all day. And 2) Taiwan was successfully containing COVID-19 and ramping up the production of masks, so protective gear was becoming less of an issue.

So the boxes of masks sat in his office, and he didn’t think much of them until COVID-19 began blowing up in the U.S. In horror, he watched TV scenes from his hometown of New York, where doctors and nurses were caring for patients without the necessary protective gear.

His new mission became finding a way to send the masks he brought to Taiwan back to his family and friends working in the medical sector in New York. But his efforts were quickly thwarted, despite numerous meetings with officials. Taiwan wasn’t allowing foreigners to export masks – even the ones that he bought in the U.S.  

“We feel let down a bit because we have adopted Taiwan as a home and built our lives and careers here,” he said. “We expect our home to treat us as family, yet that didn’t happen in our case. We weren’t treated as they treat themselves and that kind of hurt.”

I fully understand that we’re in a time of crisis. Extreme measures are necessary. The government is facing a massive challenge. Getting everything right is impossible, though Taiwan has come extremely close. One improvement would be adopting a more nuanced view of “foreigners.” More flexibility should be granted to long-term residents who have proven their deep commitment to this country.