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Taiwan’s QR Tech and Citizen Engagement Key to Containing Pandemic

While the virus may have left other countries in dire straits, Taiwan has had minimal damage. The island, home to over 23 million citizens, has maintained some of the lowest case rates in the world throughout the pandemic – lasting more than 200 days in 2020 without a single case.

Its worst outbreak was in May 2021 when its caseload daily climbed up to several hundred, a small number in comparison to other parts of the world. Even when the Omicron variant spread to Taiwan this January, case numbers were relatively low, hitting on single figures or low double digits daily.

At the heart of Taiwan’s COVID-19 strategy is a sophisticated tracking system that emerged from a crowd-sourced relatively low-tech development process. The project’s chief implementor is government-backed people’s initiative G0v, pronounced as ‘gov zero’.

At its core, G0v are volunteers and the government working as one. It is made up of a largely anonymous collective of tech workers – designers, programmers, activists –  and has been key in originating ideas to combat the pandemic threat.

Before the advent of the virus, the G0v collective was busy doing bi-monthly hackathons and ‘forking’, a practice familiar with programmers of taking existing open-source software and repurposing it into an entirely new product.

Those brain exercises seemed to have paid well. When the coronavirus hit Taiwan in the early months of 2020, G0v went into action. It began to crowdsource solutions to problems emerging as the virus threat increased. Some of these ideas (e.g., mass contact tracing, mask rationing) were entertained initially.

Taiwan’s government played a crucial part. The best ideas from G0v were pooled and then brought to Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, who is also a G0v contributor. These ideas were shared and discussed with Taiwan’s cabinet.

There were many false starts and a dozen or so ideas had to be eventually shelved. Nevertheless, one brilliant solution surfaced that would drastically change Taiwan’s approach to containing the virus.

The hybrid solution that they came out with was to use quick response (QR) codes and a 15-digit code that any Taiwanese can text for free even without a smartphone to the country’s 1922 hotline located at Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC).

Originally designed for public transportation, the QR-based system proved to be a massive success. Upon rolling out, the system was able to enlist over two million businesses that hung QR codes up on their walls. Every customer must scan these codes every time they enter a business establishment. Alternatively, one can text 1922 or go the old-fashioned way: fill out a form.

While definitely not as high tech as one may imagine, the model works. QR codes allowed local health authorities to retrace the movements of an infected person. Taiwan’s results speak for themselves. Since the first case of confirmed COVID-19 infection on the island in January of 2020, only 20,156 confirmed cases have been added.

G0v’s initiative was a shot in the arm for the island. It shows that when people pool their resources together and crowdsource, great things can truly do happen. What made it work was people’s buy-in. Wary of the ill effects of the SARS virus 20 years ago, Taiwanese all over the country were willing to cooperate and do their part.

With such a cooperative populace, it’s no surprise a host of greater things are in the offing for Taiwan. As reported on OpenGov Asia, a contract manufacturing company is setting its sights on introducing high-tech digital healthcare to Southeast Asia. With the island as the ambitious project’s launch pad, the country should be able to experience the comforts and benefits that superior healthcare offers firsthand.

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