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An American ex-pat in Taiwan: Obey quarantine or face a fine

The skyline of Taipei, Taiwan. (Photo by Remi Yuan/Unsplash)

I first spoke with American ex-pat Juanita Ingram on March 24 about what life was like living in Taiwan, a country that shut down early and worked hard to keep COVID-19 cases under control. Now, nearly six weeks later, Taiwan has only seen six coronavirus deaths and has established rigid and rigorous procedures to keep the population healthy.

“The CDC here has made it a temporary law that all businesses, all restaurants, even the schools have to effectuate a six-foot distance of social distancing,” Ingram said. “My husband and I went out on a date to a restaurant and we had to have our temperatures taken to go in, and we were obviously wearing our masks. There is actually a monetary fine if you do not; obviously, you take your mask off to eat. We were seated six feet from everybody else. We were on a double date and the other couple sat a sufficient distance away, and that’s just the new norm. My kids went back to school and in their cafeteria they’re even siting six feet apart. There is no talking, there is no socialization during lunch because your mask isn’t on. They’re not allowed to speak when their mask is off.”

Ingram said there are mandatory temperature checks to enter an office building, a school, a bus or the subway.

After getting coronavirus under control, Taipei was hit with a second wave. The country blames imported cases, foreigners who flew into Taiwan or locals who took a trip to another country then flew back home. So things are very strict at the airport.

“They can take your temperature without touching you,” Ingram said. “You’re going to walk through this corridor that is scanning your entire body temperature. I had to do three declarations to say where I’d been, if I’d exhibited any symptoms, and they will do testing right there in the airport. Here in Taiwan, we have very quick tests, very quick turnaround, but until they get the results of the test you are quarantined.”

When you leave the airport, there are “epidemic-prevention taxis” that only service people leaving the airport. Everyone who returns from an international trip must quarantine at home for two weeks. If you don’t, you will be fined.

“They told me I had to quarantine and could not leave my house, not even for essentials, for 14 days,” Ingram said. “They track your movement on your phone because in Taiwan everyone’s phone is attached to their ID so they know where you are. I was compliant, but there was a man on the fourth floor of my building who thought it would be a good idea to step outside and get some fresh air. He didn’t leave and go to the bar, but he did leave his apartment, and the police showed up and asked him what he was doing. So they’re very serious about quarantining.”

Being an American, I’m curious how Ingram feels about the government being able to track her whereabouts through her phone.

“Honestly, and I know this probably sounds very strange, but to not track would mean that I am in jeopardy. I feel safe,” she said. “They’re not tracking what I say, it’s literally geo-tracking in terms of physical location. They’re not monitoring my calls. They care where I’m standing, and I want them to care where anybody who is supposed to be in quarantine is. I think sometimes as Americans we have such individualism and we care about our privacy. Lord knows, I’m an attorney, I love the Constitution. I’m also someone who has lived on three continents now and I do have a bit of a global lens on the effect of this virus. I feel safe. I don’t feel imposed upon. It won’t be an issue if you comply.”

Ingram said she’s glad the police responded to her neighbor leaving his unit. What if he had the virus and she was in an elevator with him?

“It’s the new norm that we’re in right now,” she said. “It’s a bit of a strain, but we’re celebrating four days with no new cases so we are definitely on the other side of the flat curve.”

Ingram thinks social distancing and quarantining is generally easier for people in Taiwan compared to the United States.

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“Because places like Taiwan dealt with SARS many years ago, you don’t really have to lock down the city. You don’t have to ask them two or three times to stay at home; you don’t have to convince them that flattening the curve works; you don’t have to convince them that they shouldn’t go out and socialize,” she said. “It is a cultural compliance but it’s also a culture that lived through SARS, that understands the severity of what we we’re facing. They understand that social distancing works and also they’re a culture that respects government, and authority, and compliance.”

Ingram has a new book that she wrote over over the past few months about how to find comfort and cope during this global pandemic. Click here to learn more or buy Peace Over Panic.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram.

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