East Lansing Couple Share View of Pandemic from Taiwan

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Monday, March 30, 2020, 7:40 am
Christopher A. Wardell

Above: Selfie provided by Dudley “Smitty” Smith (right) showing him and his wife Kristin McCool-Smith in Taiwan.

“The people and government of Taiwan have taken the coronavirus very seriously from Day One,” Smitty Smith told ELi in an interview from that location. “I think it's because most people here remember surviving SARS. The vast majority of people are very aware, diligent, and taking all the right precautions.”

A long-time resident of East Lansing’s Bailey neighborhood, Dudley “Smitty” Smith is currently in Taiwan with his wife Kristin McCool-Smith as Kristin is studying advanced Chinese language in preparation for graduate school, which she plans to start in the fall. Smith is known to many here from his work founding and running the Pump House Concerts series and the associated summer festival, Pumpstock, which is tentatively scheduled to take place this August.

Smith had been splitting time between the U.S. and Taiwan, and so has been able to observe how the two places have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic, and he offered to give his neighbors that perspective via ELi.

He believes Taiwan was able to jump out ahead of trouble by taking the necessary precautions.

“Every case of the virus is backtracked ruthlessly, and potentially exposed people are tested and then self-isolated pending results,” Smith said of Taiwan. “The media reports on every case and everything going on, so it's very open and transparent.”

“The backtracking of the contact history of every infected person to find potentially exposed people is very impressive. If you are asked to self-isolate and don't, you are subject to fines and potentially jail time.”

The governmental approach to medical supplies has also been different from that in the U.S.

“For instance, the government took over mask production in January, and in about a quarter of the normal lead time, built 90 new assembly lines so that by February they could make at least three masks per person per week,” Smith explained. “Masks are rationed through the national health program, which has created a whole new social scene as people wait in line, chat, and catch up.”

“As foreigners without the national health insurance, we cannot buy masks. But an amazing number of local friends, even merchants, have given us a few here and there so we don't run out. It's all for one and one for all here,” Smith said. “Alongside the mask production, the local alcohol distillers are making 75 percent alcohol solution for disinfecting surfaces.”

Smith has found it hard to watch the news to find out what’s going on back home, and it’s been particularly tough watching how it’s affecting their loved ones.

“We feel so bad about what we read,” Smith said. “The toilet paper and other hoarding is crazy. Some loved ones have cancelled travel plans. Kristin's parents were supposed to come visit us, and have cancelled. We cancelled a planned trip this month to Vietnam. The community of musicians that I work with are suffering due to cancelled gigs. For many, this is a significant part of their income.”

“It feels like we [in Taiwan] are a couple months ahead of what the United States is experiencing now,” he said in our interview. “The school shutdowns were for most of February. Some museums have shortened hours, mid-size and large events are cancelled. The annual Matsu (a very popular Daoist deity) pilgrimage, which typically lasts ten days and involves about a million people, has been postponed indefinitely.”

Many large businesses, museums, and recreational facilities in Taiwan take patrons’ temperatures as they enter. All service providers are masked up. The duo carries hand sanitizer and uses it after handling money or riding public transit, and they wash their hands frequently.

Borders have also been controlled since early January, and, due to the number of cases elsewhere, the borders are now closed to all non-residents, with everyone entering being required to self-quarantine.

While the couple are looking forward to being back in the states “very soon,” right now the two are getting a lot out of the experience.

“We're just about the only foreigners living in our neighborhood, and the residents and merchants have kind of adopted us,” Smith said. “One family in particular has allowed us to join them in family events, and have become our cultural ambassadors. We live next to a traditional market, which is a lot of fun to observe and also a great place for fresh foods.”

Smith says he has been proud of his own home community and the work East Lansing is doing to support those affected by the pandemic.

“I read about people being very generous with their support, from donations to musicians, to the activities I see in East Lansing to help at-risk children that have to stay home from school,” Smith said. “I think that there will be a lot of people supporting each other to get through this.”

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