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Part of what brought me to Taiwan was bureaucratic thrill seeking. Few other countries had gone from “just hop on a plane” to North Korean levels of inaccessibility as fast as Taiwan, and like a cat that paws at a door just because it's closed, I wanted in. The country was off-limits to foreign visitors, but there was a tiny gap left in the regulations, and with the right references, statements of purpose, and forms filled out in triplicate it might just be possible to get a Taiwan visa and come eat all the noodles.
It was not easy! Even buying the plane ticket felt like an LSAT word problem. I could only arrive during a certain window of time on a weekday, and I had to send my visa number eight business days in advance (minding the international date line) in order to secure an entry permit that would be emailed to me after my flight took off. I would have to take a PCR test no earlier than 48 hours before landing, but at least 12 hours before departure. I needed proof of travel to get the visa, and a visa to book the plane ticket. One gate agent always lied, while another only told the truth.
It wasn’t until they let me on the plane that I believed this might actually work.
It had been two years since my last international flight, and the feeling of stepping back in time was intense. Our domestic airlines might have covid fatigue, but for China Airlines it was still April 2020. The poor flight attendants had to wear latex gloves, goggles, face shield, and a full-body plastic gown on top of their regular uniform for the entire thirteen hour flight.
The hazmat team that met our flight in Taipei made the flight attendants look reckless. A dozen or so staff in bunny suits put numbered stickers on our shoulders and read off names ten at a time. It took maybe twenty minutes to give everyone a PCR test, and another forty to get the result. When a lab worker finally came in to give us the all-clear, everybody cheered.
On our way out, I was given a little plastic card attesting that our flight was at low risk for African swine fever, the other disease Taiwan is trying to keep out of its borders. Then I saw a young woman holding up my name on a sign. The Ministry of Education had sent her to shepherd me through the arrival procedure; she had spent the night in the terminal in order to meet the early flight. Her name tag said “Angel”.
I had been briefed about what to do on arrival, but in airport situations I am an agent of chaos and the Taiwan government was wise not to take chances. The first task was to get a local SIM card so the Central Epidemic Command Center could keep track of me. I was cautioned not to turn my phone off and to answer any phone calls promptly, in order to avoid an awkward visit from the police.
Next we walked into an open space that looked like a Mad Men episode filmed at Chernobyl. There was a grid of large desks, and a bunny-suited pandemic worker was seated behind each one. A woman called me over to her desk and made me photograph a little calendar. Then she handed me a box of covid self-tests, and mimed that was supposed to take them on the days marked in red.
In exchange for the tests they asked me for the swine fever card, which I had misplaced the second I got it. By now I was carrying my luggage, entry card, phone, documents, passport, box of tests, and a tiny plastic baggie with my old SIM card inside it. Every time we stopped I found a way to lose a different combination of these items, and my poor guide lived up to her English name as she watched me rummage through my bag every ten feet. The other passengers were long gone.
The Taipei airport is one of those massive hubs set up to handle thousands of arrivals at once, but when we made it to passport control, it was deserted except for a single booth at the far corner. It felt just like leaving the Tokyo airport in May 2020, an enormous building with nobody in it.
The main terminal was also empty except for the police, the first people I had seen who were not wearing full-body protective gear. Some of the ribbons were bright red, and the cops motioned to us to disconnect them and step through the red zones until we reached the exit. My feeling of being a dangerous pathogen breaking through the island’s defenses intensified.
At the taxi rank, a final set of bunny-suited workers sprayed everyone's luggage and body with disinfectant, not forgetting the soles of the feet. My name was checked off a list and they hustled me into a quarantine cab, where a wall of plastic sheeting had been set up to protect the cab driver. It was a true Tom Friedman moment. This half-hour journey into Taipei would be my only glimpse of Taiwan for the next ten days, so whatever insights I had about this place, I’d better have them quick.
Instead, my phone buzzed, reminding me to call my quarantine hotel and warn them I was coming in hot. The staff at the hotel had prepared a plastic chute to funnel guests in from the street through the lobby and into a dedicated “red” elevator. When the cab pulled up, the desk clerk slid some documents at me through a gap in the plastic, showed me how to add the hotel as a contact in LINE (Taiwan’s universal chat app) and then sent me upstairs to start doing time.
If The Shining had been shot on a budget, the Santos Hotel would have been a good choice for a set. The hallways were dark and silent; the single plastic-wrapped chair in front of each door gave the place an eerie feeling. Later I realized the chair was just a place to put food trays. Inside my room I found a case of bottled water, a fork and chopsticks, and a brand new digital thermometer. Every surface that my virus-soaked fingers might touch, including the light switches, remote control, telephone, toilet handle, and thermostat, had been wrapped in protective plastic.
As an avid indoorsman, I did not expect staying in one room for ten days to be difficult, but confinement left me feeling surprisingly antsy. At the same time, Taiwan was the first time in two years I had experienced pandemic competence. The feeling was so unusual and refreshing that I never begrudged the fuss they made. The fact that my quarantine coincided with the debacle in Shanghai only deepened my sense of gratitude.
For its part, the hotel took good care of us. The water was hot and the internet was fast. Lunch and dinner were bento boxes with Chinese characteristics. Breakfast was a wild card—one morning they gave me what I swear was a churro sandwich.
The hotel also let guests order in. Back in America, I had spent sleepless nights regretting all the noodles that were going uneaten by me across East Asia. Now I was locked in a room with nothing to do except order from Taipei's extensive delivery network. Soon mopeds from every quarter of the city were converging on the Santos Hotel, and the poor chair outside my door groaned under a pyramid of dinners.
Nobody will ever care about my health the way they did in that hotel. Every morning brought an automated call from the CECC, asking me to press one if I had survived the night. “The Central Epidemic Command Center cares about you,” the voice would remind me, and I believed it! If I got sick, I had no doubt I’d be taken someplace safe where people would take care of me, more reassurance than I had ever had back in America. Twice a day I had to report my temperature to the hotel, as well as deny a long list of symptoms on a Google form. And in the early afternoons, my visa sponsor would call in to check in on me.
Every third day I had to take one of the rapid tests from the airport. The instructions were a wall of Chinese, but a set of IKEA-like drawings made things clear enough. The box of tests even had a little hole to hold the test vial, and the procedure reminded me of celebrating Mass. I would sit in front of the little vial stirring and muttering “hoc est mucus meum,” then apply three drops to the test wafer and pray for good health.
On the last day of quarantine we had to pass another PCR test. This was administered in a converted city bus that roved between the several quarantine hotels; like the Second Coming, no man knew its appointed hour. The hotel told us to be ready on ten minutes’ notice, and throughout the hotel excited guests sat by their doors, wearing pants for the first time in ten days, hungry for a glimpse of the sky.
When the bus came, I did my best to linger, but the trio of bunny-suited health workers was too efficient. One checked my name on a clipboard while a second rubbed the back of my brain with a test swab, and before I could stall I was being shooed back into the plastic chute.
They say you only do two days in quarantine—the day you arrive and the day you leave. My bus test must have been negative, because the next morning the hotel had put me out on the street, upgraded to a ghostly status called “self-health monitoring”. I could move into my real apartment, and even walk the streets of Taipei, but for seven days I was barred from crowded places or public transit.
Once I was free to actually see the city, the sense of traveling back in time intensified. Everyone in Taipei wore a face mask, even people on remote hiking trails. Temperature checks and hand sanitizer were unavoidable. Every building and storefront had a QR code posted at the entrance for contact tracing, and people took care to scan it and text the central authority before going inside. Woe unto those who forgot their cell phone! On the evening news, I could see whole teams of hazmat-suited workers fumigating the subway system and outdoor sidewalks, just like back in that first pandemic spring.
All told, it took seventeen days, three PCR tests, and five rapid tests for me to become street legal in Taiwan. Sadly, my quarantine period ended just as a wave of infections was beginning to break through the island's defenses. At this point the virus has simply become too infectious. After two years of successful eradication, the country will have to make the transition to living with covid like the rest of us. As I write this, the public health authority is trying to walk a delicate balancing act between getting everyone vaccinated and normalizing a disease that people have been treating like the black plague.
For me, this brief quarantine in Taiwan was a glimpse into an alternate reality where pandemic response was not a shitshow. People knew what they were doing, there was a plan and adequate resources to make it work, and everyone seemed to be living in a shared reality when it came to fighting an infectious disease. Even though I was a foreigner and a potential vector for the pandemic they were trying to keep out of their country, at every step I was treated with kindness and respect.
I don't think I could explain to anyone in Taiwan how novel this feeling is to an American, but I will always be grateful to them for it, and for the lengths they went to keep foreign guests like me safe while I plundered their restaurants. I hope the public health system can continue to lead by example as this next, difficult stage of the pandemic begins. And I hope someday we have something like it back home.
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