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Masks, memes and a hacker-turned-government official: How Taiwan smashed Covid-19

Taiwan’s team of 23.8 million has had a world-leading response to Covid-19 so far with just 487 cases, 462 of which are recovered, and seven deaths to date since the global pandemic began.

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Audrey Tang has been part of the world-leading pandemic efforts in Taiwan. Source: Q+A

The small island nation east of China has turned to technology in their fight against the virus, with government ministers such as Audrey Tang leading the way.

Tang, who identifies as non-binary, became a minister after a career in computer programming – including time on the other side of the law as a former hacker.

Tang told TVNZ1’s Q+A that while computers and cellphones have been important, there were other pieces of tech that have been vital to the nation's Covid-19 fight so far.

“The most important piece of technology is, of course, soap – hand sanitisation,” Tang said.

“But following very closely is the idea that everybody wears masks. We have models showing that if three quarters of people wear masks all day our value will be under one, meaning the virus will not spread in the community.

“So we started the mask process in February and by April more than 95 per cent of the population had access to medical masks.”

Tang said Taiwan also has a quarantine restriction at their border much like New Zealand where people who arrive must self-isolate for 14 days. But on top of that, they also have a small stipend they pay to encourage those effected to quarantine.

But one of the biggest breakthroughs Taiwan has had has been the use of cellphone towers to monitor self-isolating people.

Tang explained that when someone is in quarantine in Taiwan, their cellphone is used almost like an electronic location device and any time the phone goes outside a 50m radius of a nearby tower, local authorities are informed to take action.

“An SMS is sent to local house managers and police,” Tang said.

“If that person indeed breaks the quarantine then instead of the US$33 stipend, they will pay us back 1000 times more in a fine so people don’t usually break quarantine.”

And for the rare cases where someone doesn’t own a cellphone or tries to outsmart the system by leaving it behind when they opt to break quarantine, Tang said protocols have been put in place.

“If their cellphones stay in the same location for too long then we send an SMS to check whether their feeling well or if they’re asleep.

“But if they don’t pick up their phone or don’t reply for a while, then we know they’re not near their phones.”

But technology isn’t just stopping the spread of Covid-19 in Taiwan – it’s also keeping misinformation at bay, with officials opting for a “humour over rumour” strategy that saw the government use funny pictures and memes to get facts out.

“We discovered that the outrage-fuelled spread by a value of 3, meaning that every hour on average a person shared misinformation to three people on social media, so if we could make something with a higher value then we can actually combat the misinformation by making people laugh.”

One example included the Prime Minister himself.

“By literally making himself the butt of the joke, everyone laughed about it and once you laugh about it, they will be calm and read [the information].”

Q+A asked Tang what advice they would give to policy makers in New Zealand, given in contrast Kiwis only have to wear masks on public transport starting tomorrow and the contact-tracing app being used here is voluntary.

Tang said one of the biggest differences to note straight away was the perception of masks in the two small nations.

“The way we rolled out mask use was actually by popular demand,” Tang said.

“If you ask random people on the street in Taiwan… people wore masks anyway.

“You wear a mask to protect yourself from your own unwashed hands. If you forget to wash your hands, your mask protects you.”