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In 2008, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, then chairperson of the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, spoke at the Cornell Law School’s “Cross-Strait Relations: Past, Present, and Future” event.

As Taiwan’s president, alumna leads fight against COVID-19

As president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the COVID-19 virus. Out of nearly 24 million citizens, the country had only 812 cases and seven deaths as of Jan. 4, according to The New York Times – a rate that is among the world’s lowest. Taiwan has used testing, contact tracing and isolation measures to control infections without a full national lockdown.

We ask President Tsai about her leadership during this time and what factors she attributes to her success.

During your inaugural address in May 2020, after winning a second term as president, you said, “It takes more than fervor to govern a country. Leadership means calmly taking the right course in a changing world.” What are some leadership lessons you can share from Taiwan’s successful effort combating COVID-19?

A major leadership lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of creating a shared sense of purpose. It was most gratifying to see people from all walks of life put aside their differences, and come together to work for the common good. Leadership means inspiring unity, which was the real key to our success in combating COVID-19.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, shown here at Cornell Law School in 2008, says a major leadership lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic is “the importance of creating a shared sense of purpose.”

Taiwan also had an advantage because of our extensive experience in disease prevention from fighting SARS, H1N1, H7N9 and dengue fever. That gave us a body of knowledge and a professional team with specialized expertise who were empowered to lead our response. Based on their expert advice, we acknowledged the severity of the situation early on, and effectively mobilized the resources of government, the private sector and, most important, the people of Taiwan.

In early January, I convened the first in a series of high-level national security meetings to coordinate government efforts and give disease-control directives. Our existing national health care system and advanced digital capabilities helped create a comprehensive safety net to track and monitor the virus.

We also partnered with domestic manufacturers and quickly transformed Taiwan from an importer of face masks into the world’s second-largest producer. We were able to not only produce enough masks for our own citizens, but also donate masks and other supplies to countries in need.

We inspired public confidence by providing timely and transparent information. Our Central Epidemic Command Center held daily press conferences to brief our citizens on the development of the pandemic and to answer questions from the media. I also provided regular updates and encouragement on my social media accounts to keep the country informed. These platforms allowed us to communicate directly with the public to clarify policies and fight rumors, building the public trust.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact are far from over. Our success thus far makes us confident in our ability to adapt to changing circumstances and work together to protect our people, while maintaining steady economic development amid serious global challenges. This capability makes us all proud of Taiwan.

How was Taiwan able to avoid the lockdown measures that became common in many parts of the world?

The three key components of Taiwan’s pandemic response – prudent action, rapid response and early deployment – gave us a head start that meant we never had to go into lockdown.

Late last year we detected the existence of an unidentified virus in Wuhan, China. On that very day, we began to implement a series of measures to prevent an outbreak in Taiwan. They included border quarantine, early diagnosis and treatment of confirmed cases, contact tracing, home isolation of close contacts, public education programs, maintaining social distance, and mobilization of all necessary personnel and resources.

The combination of these measures, the concerted efforts of the public and private sectors and the collaboration of our people gave Taiwan a strong line of defense to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This also allowed our people to go on with their lives as usual.

There have been numerous news reports about how female heads of state appear to have been more effective at responding to the pandemic than their male counterparts. Would you agree that leadership traits more often associated with women, such as compassion, humility and collaboration, have been especially important in addressing COVID-19?

Successfully controlling COVID-19 depends on how effective the leader’s policies are. What is most important is the ability to make policy decisions with precision, garner public confidence, and then direct government institutions to implement those policies.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, shown here at Cornell Law School in 2008, has presided over one of the most successful efforts in the world at containing the COVID-19 virus.

Leadership traits like compassion, humility and collaboration are not confined just to women. In fact, effective leadership requires a wide range of character traits and skills that transcend gender.

When the world sees Taiwan’s success in fighting the pandemic, I hope they are not just looking at the leader’s gender, but at everyone’s contributions. As I have said before, being a woman president, I have a responsibility to promote women’s empowerment, both at home and abroad. I will not stop until the term “female president” is a thing of the past. This is – and has always been – my goal.

How has your legal background helped you when making difficult policy choices about how to contain the spread of the virus?

My legal background gave me the intellectual tools to approach issues logically and analytically. This kind of mindset is certainly helpful when dealing with a pandemic that requires quick and decisive policy decisions.

I was fortunate to receive legal training in both the United States and United Kingdom, countries steeped in democratic values and the rule of law, and that had a major impact on my thinking. In fact, democracy and transparency were the keys to our success. With this in mind, I have been making sure that pandemic-related policies do not infringe on personal privacy or human rights. This meant we were particularly careful when using personal information in the National Health Insurance system for contact tracing and face-mask distribution.

While my legal background has undoubtedly been an asset, legal expertise has to go hand in hand with expertise in other fields. Fortunately, my experience in international trade negotiations gave me tremendous respect for experts in different fields, leading me to place great value on input from our Central Epidemic Command Center. They gave us a dedicated, professional and extremely knowledgeable team to fight the pandemic.

This article was adapted from “Tsai Ing-wen: setting an example for the world,” by Chris Brouwer, editorial director at Cornell Law School. It appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Cornell Law School’s Forum magazine.

Media Contact

Rachel Rhodes