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Taiwan's coronavirus response is among the best globally

Hong Kong(CNN) On January 25, as the world was still waking up to the potential danger of the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly out of central China, two governments recorded four new infections within their territory.

Australia and Taiwan have similar sized populations of about 24 million people, both are islands, allowing strict controls over who crosses their borders, and both have strong trade and transport links with mainland China. Ten weeks on from that date, however, Australia has almost 5,000 confirmed cases, while Taiwan has less than 400.

The question is not what Australia did wrong -- 20 countries have more cases than Australia, and seven have more than 10 times as many -- but how Taiwan has kept the virus under control when other parts of the world have not.

Hard learned lessons

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, Taiwan was among the worst-hit territories, along with Hong Kong and southern China. More than 150,000 people were quarantined on the island -- 180 kilometers (110 miles) off China's southeastern coast -- and 181 people died.

While SARS now pales in comparison to the current crisis, it sent shockwaves through much of Asia and cast a long shadow over how people responded to future outbreaks. This helped many parts of the region react faster to the current coronavirus outbreak and take the danger more seriously than in other parts of the world, both at a governmental and societal level, with border controls and the wearing of face masks quickly becoming routine as early as January in many areas.

Taiwan has a world-class health care system, with universal coverage. As news of the coronavirus began to emerge from Wuhan in the run up to the Lunar New Year, officials at Taiwan's National Health Command Center (NHCC) -- set up in the wake of SARS -- moved quickly to respond to the potential threat, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

"Taiwan rapidly produced and implemented a list of at least 124 action items in the past five weeks to protect public health," report co-author Jason Wang, a Taiwanese doctor and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine, said in a statement. "The policies and actions go beyond border control because they recognized that that wasn't enough."

This was while other countries were still debating whether to take action. In a study conducted in January, Johns Hopkins University said Taiwan was one of the most at-risk areas outside of mainland China -- owing to its close proximity, ties and transport links.

Among those early decisive measures was the decision to ban travel from many parts of China, stop cruise ships docking at the island's ports, and introduce strict punishments for anyone found breaching home quarantine orders.

In addition, Taiwanese officials also moved to ramp up domestic face-mask production to ensure the local supply, rolled out islandwide testing for coronavirus -- including retesting people who had previously unexplained pneumonia -- and announced new punishments for spreading disinformation about the virus.