By C. Joseph Chang
Special to the Tribune
Like many of our readers, I have humbly reconsidered many basic aspects that I had previously taken for granted prior to 2020. The uniquely infectious nature of COVID-19 has forced us to creatively stretch ourselves to continue our way of life.
As COVID-19 has affected our school district, I helped oversee the virtual curriculum and adjustment process to the international pandemic. I worked diligently as San Marino Unified School District board president with our superintendent, Dr. Jeff Wilson, and a core team since March 2020, so that our kids could continue to learn during this difficult time.
However, my trip to Taiwan this past December has allowed me to further reflect and wish to share my curious journey. This past year marked the longest time away from my hometown in 37 years. When our understanding of the COVID-19 virus through our public health measures had sufficiently improved, I decided to visit my relatives for a bit longer this time.
Despite its small size as an island nation with a population of 23.78 million, Taiwan represents an example of public health at its finest. Of the 103 million cases worldwide, only 915 have been in Taiwan since the start of the pandemic, including eight months without a single death, according to a Reuters story on Jan. 29. These rare numbers are only possible through a shared community adherence to public health measures that have protected the people. Before my flight to Taiwan, I had to begin to prepare for the gamut of regulations from Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control for incoming travelers.
It began with a carefully timed negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departure. As I felt the swab jab what must have been my basal ganglia, I thought about the marathon of health precautions to come. My son insisted on driving me to LAX with everyone wearing surgical masks and the windows down given the close quarters of our car. Upon arrival, I switched to an N95 mask. As I entered the terminal, this was the largest number of people I had seen in recent memory gathered within a building. Upon boarding the 14-hour flight, I did my best keep my mask on with minimal fumbling and adjustment as the HEPA filters continuously whirled overhead.
The next 14 days was an example of a well-oiled machine that was carefully constructed after closely studying the natural history of the virus. Upon arrival, each traveler provided their
cellphone number to Taiwan’s CDC for state-of-the-art contact tracing purposes. I was whisked away by a government-organized taxi to a hotel approved by Taiwan’s CDC. Every traveler flying to Taiwan is required to isolate for 14 days either at an assigned quarantine hotel or at home with an isolated full bathroom. As my taxi approached my new temporary home, I wondered what my room would look like and if I would even have neighbors.
My first 14 days were totally vested in ensuring that I would not be an agent of infection. I tried to reflect that this was a point of pride for public safety. As I stepped into my hotel room, I glanced around the desk, bed and bathroom. I noticed ads and well-crafted messages that encouraged me to join this public health measure and was reminded I was doing this for the community. I turned around and peaked out of my hotel door and a voice boomed, “Hello! Room 605, please stay indoors and we will help you out.” I quickly pulled my head back wondering what a curious situation I was now in.
For the next two weeks, I decided against any more peaks, even outside my lonely hallway. Of course, I knew it was paramount that I avoid seeing anyone to prevent the spread of the virus. Strong public health measures were the cornerstone to the eight-month oasis that had prevented deaths when the rest of the world coped with its losses.
However, perhaps the most curious thing was how technology permitted life to slowly, but surely, march on. At “Hotel Quarantine,” a daily text from the CDC would ping to ask about my lack of symptoms. Shortly after, a local city representative would call me twice a day to ask about my health and I appreciated hearing her voice. Certainly, boredom quickly ensued, but was helped by Zoom meetings with my friends and businesses in Los Angeles. The marvel of technology allowed me to welcome two incoming SMUSD board members. I witnessed a smooth transition of the 2020-21 Board of Education during my last school board meeting as board president from my hotel-room-converted oval office.
While I certainly longed to see my relatives, I came to appreciate the consideration the system gave to the individual undergoing the quarantine. I always took advantage of the LINE service to chat free with my friends instead of using a paid phone. I called to thank and show my appreciation for how the hotel manager installed an excellent router to allow me to connect to the outside world. During meals, I looked forward to what surprises my daily delivery of Taiwanese lunchables and dinner boxes would bring.
The two weeks allowed me to simultaneously disconnect from my busy schedules in L.A and paradoxically stay in touch through text, Zoom and FaceTime.
Finally, I was released from the hotel at the stroke of midnight on Christmas Day. I had finally completed my obligation mandated by Taiwan’s CDC. From here on, I would still adhere to several public health measures due to my status as a traveler. I was allowed to participate in outside activities with the exception of taking public transportation, including subway, railroad and bus. While I knew what I went through was small relative to the sacrifices of others, I still felt a strange mixture of pride and relief.
Ultimately, it was in my fourth week when I finally started to fully enjoy my wonderful Taiwan trip. With my mask in a permitted outside gathering, we celebrated New Year’s Eve. Fireworks lit up the dark night, and we strolled through familiar lanes at the effervescent night market. Nostalgia overcame me from beneath my mask.
After I returned to L.A., I missed the gust of wind from incoming subways while again feeling safe outside and the thought of being able to try new gourmet foods each day. I realized that the people in Taiwan deeply appreciated their government interest to preserve the safety of the COVID-19 Health Policy to maintain a level of normalcy. However, the daily sacrifice and frontloaded safety measures helped to create this oasis to allow the citizen on this island nation to continue a normal life each day.
Taiwan’s strict approach to public health has allowed it to remain the safest country in resisting the COVID-19 pandemic. The trip has made me realize my fortune and appreciate the measures of our own public health. Certainly, the experience was unexpected in the modern day, but it is increasingly important in our ever-changing world. For better or worse, I expect more changes to rapidly come but believe we will become stronger with each challenge. I submit to you that the cornerstone of safely overcoming this past year has been our dedication to protecting our communities and, in our families. Thank you for your perseverance.
First elected in November 2001, C. Joseph Chang is in his 20th year as a member of the San Marino Unified School District’s Board of Education having served five terms and serving as board president four times. A retired hospital administrator, Chang and his wife, Shwu, have two sons, Frederick and Patrick, who graduated from San Marino High School in 2006 and 2009, respectively, and are both physicians. Chang graduated from Tulane University’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.