Non-linear Social and Political Development under Disasters: The Case of Taiwan in the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Critical Asia

by Dung-Sheng Chen, Dec. 2020】

The Covid-19 pandemic has threatened people’s lives and freedom all over the world. Until December 6th, 2020, the infected cases are 66.5 million and the death toll is 1.53 million. There is no evidence that this severe infectious disease will be eased soon even though vaccines for Covid-19 have been successfully invented in a few countries. Some of them have taken unusual actions which terminate general elections, delimit freedom of speech, or disband oppositional political parties. Therefore, a report recently released by the Freedom House suggested that “the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries and this deterioration is particularly acute in struggling democracies and repressive states.”[1] The pandemic has not only made serious negative impact on human lives but also resulted into destruction of democracy. The Covid-19 pandemic provides an excellent case to discuss the dynamic relationship between state power, civil society and democracy. It should also be asked whether societal development occurs in a homogeneous and linear trajectory proposed by modernization theories. I will employ Taiwan as an example to address these issues.

In a 2015 article, I argued that Taiwan has never been a latecomer, in order to criticize the modernization theories.[2] A longitudinal analysis of an institutional development needs to put in the historical context and to take impacts of unexpected events or contingencies into consideration. The damage of Covid-19 has been successfully contained both in terms of the number of infected cases and deaths in Taiwan not as a leading modernized country. According to Hasell’s study posted in “Our World in Data,” Taiwan achieved 0.6 percent in economic growth while having successfully protected the health of her people in 2020. By contrast, those countries like Spain, United Kingdom, France, and Italy with serious harm from Covid-19 experienced economic declines of more than 15 percent.[3]

In some preliminary studies of Taiwan’s outstanding performance in Covid-19 control, one frequently mentioned reason is the lesson learned from the failure of 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) control. After the SARS disaster, the first change made by the state was to recruit medical doctors specializing in communicable diseases into the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control, and they use their expertise in doing infectious disease surveys, analysis of possible infectious disease transmission, disease control plans, and early detection of possible pandemics. This new human resource has largely strengthened the bureau’s research and development capacities. The second action was to increase the bureau’s ability as well as timely response in dealing with major crises by implementing frequent exercises in simulations of pandemic occurrence. The third change was to set up a strict regulation to require hospitals to prepare necessary medical materials such as face masks or protective clothing for at least two months. The state has engaged itself into a continuous process of state capacity building after it failed to deal with SARS.

Taiwan’s National Health Insurance (NIH) program has been established in 1995, and it is remarked as having a top quality with affordable expenses for all the residents. The expenses of Taiwan’s NIH were roughly 4% of gross domestic production, and national health expenses were 6.6% in 2017, compared with the 17% of the United States. This institution has played a positive role in Covid-19 pandemic control. One characteristic of NIH is social inclusion without excluding temporary immigrant workers and poor people, and it has facilitated strong social solidarity and enhanced social trust among Taiwan’s residents. The national survey indicated that more than 80% of the respondents agreed that the healthy should help the sick and the wealthy should help the poor in medical expenses. Since all sick residents will be fully supported by other participants in the NIH, these sick people are not afraid of telling being infected. They trust other residents in this system while they want to become trust-worthy themselves to protect the medical treatment system. High social trust is one of crucial elements to bring citizens together for successful Covid-19 control in addition to strong state capabilities.

In the successful case of Taiwan in pandemic control, a capable state is very important to protect her residents’ lives and then guarantee their freedom. It differs from liberalism’s position which proposes that smallest governments can defend lay people’s freedom most adequately. In this serious pandemic, Taiwan’s state continues to expand its political power in order to prevent more damages caused by Covid-19 affecting the whole society, but it might move beyond the narrow corridor of freedom and democracy to become an authoritarian political machine.[4] In order to keep under surveillance those citizens who were under fourteen days’ quarantine, Taiwan’s government used digital positioning technology of mobile phones to follow their personal traces, and any abnormal movement would be immediately notified to the police and health administrators. Furthermore, the government collected big data from mobile phone companies to find out 627,386 citizens who were possibly in contact with passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise. It had berthed in Kaohsiung Harbor for 5 days after the Covid-19 outbreak was reported at Yokohama on February 5, 2020.[5] This successful case was documented and published in a major medical journal by a research team led by the Deputy Prime Minster. In this paper, the authors from the government emphasized that a systematic integration of electronic health records, phone-based GPS, card transactions, closed-circuit televisions, and departure-and-arrival records is very important to increase the efficiency of disease contact tracing and disease transmission interruption.

Some scholars raised their doubt on whether this systematic connection of various information without any consent from citizens violated the constitution and broke the principle of proportionality in law.[6] Even though the state might have authority to connect these personal data under the emergency situation, it still needs an independent committee including representatives from the civil society to monitor how the government utilized this information and when it will de-link all the personal information to protect citizens’ privacy after the pandemic is stopped. In addition, non-governmental organizations also criticized that the medical personnel oversea travel restriction policy postulated by the government invaded the mobility right protected by the constitution.[7] These cases demonstrated that Taiwan’s civil society did worry about over-expansion of state power and directly expressed their different opinions. During the pandemic, the civil society has continued to play a responsible role to check and balance the state power even though it might not achieve a significant influence in policy revision.

Civil organizations also took an active role in participating in the pandemic control rather than being a passive gate-keeper of freedom and democracy. In early March 2020, people had to stand in line for a long time to get face masks or to even get nothing at the end, therefore immediate information about the distribution of face masks in all the stores were very useful for the general public. A few members from hackers’ organizations voluntarily delivered a face mask distribution electronic map in which citizens could check this continuously updated information from their mobile devices. Later on, they collaborated with the government and provided more accurate information than the previous version. In this process, civil organizations learned the operation of the government and took responsibility in creating the public good. Capable non-governmental organizations in policy initiation and policy actualization can function more effectively to balance the state power than the passive monitor. According to Ostrom’s argument, the state is not necessary an efficient governing mechanism for common resources, compared with self-initiated governing models.[8]

A severe disaster can undermine a universal ranking system of national economic and political development, and the uncertainty of societal change will increase significantly. This can be learned from the case of Taiwan in the Covid-19 pandemic in many respects. The capabilities of a given country to face disaster challenges do not depend on her past achievements in economy and democracy. On the contrary, it is significant that nation-states are willing to learn crucial lessons from their previous failures in emergency management, to establish societal institutions enhancing both reciprocity and social trust among their residents, and to facilitate the development of active civil societies. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Taiwan as a newly democratized country has faced risk in moving back to an authoritarian regime because of state power over-expansion, but citizen organizations have earnestly raised doubt about inadequate policies in damaging human rights and have also taken the initiative in creating and governing common resources. Taiwan demonstrates a non-linear dynamic trajectory in economic, political, and social development under the threat of a severe disaster.

Dung-Sheng Chen, National Taiwan University, Taiwan


[1] Source:

[2] Chen, Dung-Sheng. 2015. “We Have Never Been Latecomers: A Critical Review of High-Tech Industry and Social Studies of Technology in Taiwan.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 9(4): 381-396.

[3] Source:

[4] Acemoglu, Daron, and James Robison. 2019. The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty. New York: Penguin Press.

[5] Chen, Chi-Mai, et al. 2020. “Containing COVID-19 Among 627,386 Persons in Contact With the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship Passengers Who Disembarked in Taiwan: Big Data Analytics.” Journal of Medical Internet Research 22.5: e19540. URL:

[6] Source:, Taiwan Association for Human Right.

[7] Source:

[8] Ostrom, Elinor. 1990. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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