As we brace for the full effect of the coronavirus pandemic in San Francisco, we must make sure we act more like Taiwan and not Italy to ensure we get through this ordeal.

A writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio lamented “it took weeks after the virus first appeared here to realize that severe measures were absolutely necessary.” Now Italy is in lockdown, but only after it became one of the world’s hottest spots for coronavirus and its healthcare system reached the breaking point.

We should consider Italy a warning. San Francisco officials are telling residents to shelter at home. The only exception is to get something essential at a grocery store or pharmacy, which will remain open. We must take the coronavirus seriously and follow the advice of health experts. That means everyone must practice comprehensive social distancing (which means no in-person interactions outside immediate family in your home).

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate," Michael O. Leavitt said in 2007, two years before the former Secretary of Health and Human Services had to deal with the start of the H1NI virus outbreak.

Public safety priority

The most important job of our federal, state and local governments right now is to keep people safe. Even if officials didn’t act quickly at first, bold steps to limit the spread of coronavirus are finally being taken.

The bad news is many states and cities were not in sync when it came to closing schools, restaurants and restricting the smallest of gatherings. The policies and timelines of some jurisdictions lagged behind others.

But the good news is that San Francisco and California have been ahead of the curve and we’ll benefit from it — if we heed what we’re being told.

  • San Francisco’s official response to coronavirus is here.

  • California’s Department of Public Health coronavirus website is here.

  • Federal information from the Centers for Disease Control is here

San Francisco took quick and early action by telling the Warriors to stop playing games in front of large crowds before the NBA suspended the season. City Hall was also aggressive in banning smaller gatherings.

Our public schools, however, vacillated over whether to close or not. School officials initially didn’t want to close every campus — even after City College and San Francisco State University had closed its classrooms and switched to online-only instruction.

The school district eventually announced a three-week closure on the same day 11 students at two elementary schools reported respiratory illnesses.

It was a complicated situation for the school district. Many at-risk students often find their only meal of the day at school. The district was also concerned about low-income parents who can’t afford child care if school is not in session.

But those concerns should not override the threat of a virus. Part of City Hall’s response to the crisis should include a program to feed kids when schools are closed, which the school district is now offering.

Many San Francisco parents reported on social media that they pulled their children from class while schools were still open and worked with teachers to set up independent homeschooling. They didn’t wait for the school district to come up with a plan for remote learning.

More than 2,000 schools in the United States were already closed while San Francisco’s remained open. Education Week has published a blog and online map with twice-daily updates on school closures nationwide.

School closures was one of the practices that helped Taiwan avoid a coronavirus disaster. A class was cancelled if one student got sick. The entire school closed if two students were infected. And Taiwan’s action plan called for shutting down all schools if students became sick in one-third of a city’s schools.

Learn from Taiwan

It would be wise to learn from Taiwan’s action plan to find out how Taiwan ended up with the lowest incidence rate per capita of any country affected by coronavirus in the world, according to a report by NBC News.

Only 81 miles off the coast of mainland China, “Taiwan was expected to have the second highest number of cases of coronavirus disease due to its proximity to and number of flights between China,” according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Yet astonishingly, “Taiwan has remained relatively coronavirus free,” according to an article in U.S. News and World Report.

A professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong wrote an essay in the New York Times that describes how Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore were able to stabilize the coronavirus threat without resorting to China’s draconian measures.

Taiwan is a democracy that protects civil liberties, but it didn’t let that get in the way of quick action to safeguard public health. Also, Taiwan learned from mistakes it made during the SARS outbreak in 2003. 

The JAMA article should be required reading for government officials in the U.S. because it outlines everything Taiwan has done right so far to avoid coronavirus.

The NBC News report and other news articles offer a good summary:

  • Taiwan wasted no time requiring hospitals to test people so the infected could be identified and isolated. Flights from the epicenter in Wuhan and most Chinese cities were quickly banned.

  • Taiwan relied heavily on technology like temperature monitors at airports, office buildings and schools to detect anyone with a fever.

  • Taiwanese media cooperated with the government by broadcasting public service announcements every hour that told people how to wash their hands and when to wear a mask.

  • Taiwan is lucky to have expert leadership. The country’s vice president is also an epidemiologist with a doctorate degree from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

  • Taiwan also has a universal health care system that makes it easier to track people for treatment and quarantine.

  • Effective use of big data and analytics was key in Taiwan’s successful response to the crisis.

Small business health

Our local economy will suffer as people shelter at home and City Hall closes bars, restaurants and non-essential stores. While a focus on public health is the priority, it’s good to see city officials also finding ways to support our small businesses and their employees.

City Hall is delaying business tax collection and waiving business fees. This will free up critical cash flow for small businesses, some who have experienced a 50 to 70 percent drop in revenue in the last month.

A proposal to offer businesses zero interest loans sounds nice, but in reality no business will want a loan if they have zero revenue. City Hall should focus more on a tax holiday or even a tax credit.

Helping the local economy survive is worth the price of decreased revenue at City Hall. Before we knew about coronavirus, City Hall had already projected a $320 million deficit over the next two fiscal years. Now it will be forced to reckon with an oversized $12 billion budget, which needed cutting for a long time. 

San Francisco’s small businesses have long felt squeezed by the onerous fees, permit processes and regulations imposed by City Hall. The arrival of the coronavirus has only exacerbated an existing problem. Perhaps the virus will force us to revisit our small business policy to allow them to be economically resilient and build savings to protect against future market downturns. 

We must look to silver linings during this crisis to know we will survive it.

Remain vigilant and hopeful

I’m friends with two widows in their 80s and 90s who my husband and I like to take out to dinner. We canceled our restaurant outing earlier this month because we knew seniors are considered high risk and should avoid crowds. Now, they must shelter at home. I’ll offer to drop off at their door any supplies they might need. And I’ll email or call them so they don’t feel socially isolated. We can hope for the time we will enjoy each other’s company over a meal again. 

It’s important to look after our neighbors while keeping ourselves healthy.

We must be serious about coronavirus and take fast, decisive action to protect public health. We must be clear-headed and not panic. Together, we can ensure San Francisco will come through this crisis better and stronger than before.

Joel Engardio is a candidate for supervisor on San Francisco’s westside in District 7. Learn more about his views on local issues at

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