Back to the future: lessons of a SARS hysteria for the COVID-19 pandemic

Allen Chun*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During the COVID-19 global pandemic, Taiwan has been universally praised for its policy actions in preventing its initial outbreak there from Wuhan and for its strict measures in containing its communal spread locally. Memory of the SARS crisis played a major role, but people in Taiwan forget that SARS was initially considered a problem confined mostly to Hong Kong. Taiwanese did not seem urgently aware, until infections multiplied locally. Taiwan’s health authorities eventually adopted a draconian quarantine policy, but mainly as a political tactic to contain the widespread panic, as though the dam had suddenly burst. In retrospect, the extremity and internal contradictions of the policy are remarkable, but they are instructive. The initial reaction of unprepared governments, most notably in the US, during COVID-19 mirrors this same ineptitude. Enabling hysteria and resorting to scapegoating were in turn diversions to cover up their inability to prevent a crisis. In the US, racism emerged, China and the WHO were blamed, people were even urged not to wear masks to avoid a run on short supplies. This is the tip of the political iceberg, if one adds tightened immigration and economic effects on the U.S. elections.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)585-597
Number of pages13
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - 4 May 2021


  • COVID-19
  • culture of public health policy
  • politics of distraction
  • SARS
  • Taiwan
  • US


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