Government and Citizens Unite Against Covid-19

From Taiwan Panorama 2020-09-03
Yi Tonn Covid Prevention Arts and Crafts Studio (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Yi Tonn Covid Prevention Arts and Crafts Studio (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)

Government agencies have been demonstrating a new aptitude for communication in recent years. Their tactics for getting information out to the public now range from creative social media editing to institu­tional branding to complete revamps of government publications. These methods have given agencies a less conservative look, but is the public buying it?

In 2006, Time magazine placed a mirrored cover on its “Person of the Year” issue, reflecting the image of that year’s winner—“you”—back at the reader.

Communications research has typically depicted readers and listeners as undifferentiated, passive audiences. But audience models have changed as researchers have realized that readers and listeners are active information processors. New technologies now cultivate “active participa­tion.” Mechanisms such as online interaction, community connection, and “self-media” enable speakers to address the world and become “actors” who “do something.” These mechanisms are making it possible for each of us to change the world in our own small ways.

With the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, governments around the world have focused even more intently on disease control and communication. Here in Taiwan, not only has the government taken timely action, but our public too has been sharing information and expertise in the effort to hold the line against the disease. Just as in Time magazine in 2006, this year’s person of the year has been “you.”

Central Epidemic Command Center

“The virus is coming! The virus is coming!”

On 31 December 2019, someone posted on a PTT bulletin board that a SARS-type pneumonia of unknown origin had appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Taiwan responded to the news by beginning an investigation, notifying the World Health Organization, and hitting the alarm button.

Recalling our horrible experience with SARS in 2003, Taiwan also immediately established the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) to prepare our island for the arrival of Covid-19.

First face-mask map debuts

Howard Wu returned to Taiwan after completing studies in the US and founded Goodideas Studio in his hometown of Tainan. An engineer seeking to build something more than a simple shared space, Wu created an information sharing platform for southern Taiwan. He also wanted to cultivate a “different kind” of engineer in Tainan, one aiming to write programs that solve problems in ways that improve people’s lives.

Wu worked through the night to write Taiwan’s first face-mask locator app. He originally intended it just for friends, but unexpectedly found it helping many other people. “I get the most satisfaction from seeing my work truly helping people.” Though the app only existed for two days before the government’s 3 February announcement of face-mask rationing, it enjoyed a huge response over its short life.

Audrey Tang, the government’s digital minister, contacted Wu via the g0v open government portal and arranged for the relevant face-mask data to be released to the open-data community to facilitate the development of additional face-mask maps.

The moment the news came out, others in the info­sphere rolled up their sleeves and began contributing their individual expertise. A data format was announced on 5 February and uploaded the following day. Taiwan’s biggest ever single-issue online hackathon ensued, with the open-data community quickly developing more than 130 apps in a landmark example of government-citizen cooperation.

The creation of so many tools in such a short time period has enabled the dissemination of large volumes of pandemic information, which has enhanced the public’s focus on and understanding of disease prevention. “Many countries have approached disease control from the standpoint of compulsory lockdowns imposed from above,” explains Wu. “Taiwan took a bottom-up approach in which individuals spontaneously and willingly assumed responsibility for their own behavior and took care of others. Everyone has to have this kind of awareness to have a solid line of defense.”

#I’m OK, you go ahead

Face masks were in short supply during the early stages of the outbreak. Even with the government initi­ating rationing on 6 February and establishing a taskforce to set up new face-mask production lines, it would take time for supplies to catch up with demand. Someone on Facebook therefore started the “#I’m OK, you go ahead” face-mask campaign, which encouraged people to leave the then available masks for those who truly needed them: frontline personnel and patients who had to visit the hospital frequently. Nearly 10,000 people indicated they would participate, and many spread the message online.

Neighboring nations also adopted the idea. A South Korean campaign with a similar name got underway in early March, urging the public to reserve masks for healthcare providers and disadvantaged groups.

Once Taiwan’s supply of face masks had caught up to demand, on 27 April the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) began allowing the public to donate masks via an app to support international cooperation and assistance. As of 25 August, more than 710,000 people had responded, donating some 6.14 million masks in what might be called a further evolution of the “I’m OK” campaign.

Taiwan CDC changes data presentation

Taiwan’s infection numbers have remained relatively low throughout the pandemic. Aside from watching the daily pandemic press conference, everyone basically went on with their work and their lives.

In mid-April, Designsurfing, a well known Taiwanese design critic, shared an interesting story on Facebook.

Sharp-eyed individuals had commented online that while the MOHW’s daily epidemic report contained a great deal of information, it was hard to take in at one glance. In early April, the MOHW’s social media editors took their advice to heart and revised the layout, enlarging important figures and adjusting the backgrounds to give it more focus and make it easier to quickly grasp.

Designsurfing says that the comments show that the general public’s aesthetic standards have risen, and that the ministry’s willingness to listen and to give young designers greater authority will encourage experts to offer their recommendations more freely. Moreover, the opening of communication channels in this way ensures that the public has a greater voice in creating a more beautiful environment. This advance in Taiwanese aesthetics has been a very small but happy side effect of the pandemic. 

Baseball season begins

With Taiwan one of the few places succeeding in its prevention efforts during the pandemic’s first global peak, the Chinese Professional Baseball League became the world’s first professional baseball league to open its season. When the CTBC Brothers played the Uni-­President Lions behind closed doors at the Taichung Inter­continental Baseball Stadium, CPBL pitchers were the only pro players in the world able to take the mound.

Taiwan’s good fortune led Japanese baseball fans to comment: “How lucky to be able to watch baseball!” and “Taiwan’s people and government are all so diligent!” The American Institute in Taiwan even posted on Facebook to say that with the opening of the American baseball season delayed by the pandemic, American baseball fans were fortunate to have Taiwanese baseball available to fill the void.

On 8 May, the CPBL permitted 1000 fans to attend a game in person, making Taiwan the first place in the world to open a professional baseball game to a live audi­ence since the start of the pandemic.

screenshots from agencies’ fan pages

Pink mask movement

At a 13 April press conference, CECC head Chen Shih-chung and all the officials taking part in the confer­ence donned pink face masks. They were responding to the case of a little boy who was uncomfortable wearing a pink mask for fear of being mocked at school. By putting on pink masks, these usually solemn and dignified officials not only demonstrated their concern for disease control, but also for the feelings of a child. They stood with this boy not just in word, but in deed.

The show of support continued on Facebook as many social media editors colored their avatars and logos pink. The participation of corporations, institutions, and brands including McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Ministry of Culture, the Forestry Bureau, the Ministry of Education, and Taiwan Beer gave the campaign an almost celebratory feeling.

This use of online platforms to amplify the message that color isn’t gendered has not only advanced gender equality in Taiwan, but also heightened disease prevention awareness.

A disease control arts and crafts studio

Illustrator Tonn Hsu got into the habit of drawing while watching the daily press conference on the pandemic. Much like beer with fried chicken, the pairing has proved a perfect match. Hsu has been closely following the Covid-19 situation since the beginning of the year and says that the pandemic feels almost like something you’d see in a novel or a film.

Keeping an eye on the daily 2 p.m. press conferences and wanting to do some non-project-related drawing in her free time, Hsu found herself frequently sketching the cultured-looking minister of health and welfare. She included a face-mask-wearing coffee mug on his desk, and then designed her sketch to work as a 3D pop-up and added a speech bubble. “The speech bubble was crucial because it let everyone add their own thoughts.” Hsu made copies of the drawing, then cut and folded them into shape to create 3D versions of Minister Chen. She was surprised by the enthusiastic response to the figures when she posted them online and opened “classes” at her “Yi Tonn Covid Prevention Arts and Crafts Studio.”

With online followers clamoring for a second drawing, she set to work again. Reflecting on Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s fondness for videoconferences, Hsu chose to put her face on a screen atop a robot body, playfully portray­ing her “tall forehead,” hint of a smile and long hair.

Hsu’s third and fourth drawings focused on warnings against travel abroad and on frontline workers. At the end of April, she partnered with the Hahow educational marketplace to create a paper figure of then vice president of the ROC Chen Chien-jen that can be dressed up in the armor of a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

This is the first time Hsu has involved herself in a social issue in a professional capacity. She says that she hopes her work reminds people in a gentle way not to be afraid, and that it encourages them to use their skills to give back to society so we can fight this disease together.

For more pictures, please click 《Government and Citizens Unite Against Covid-19

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