In this series, the Messenger will share the stories of Oles who were abroad as the global coronavirus pandemic began. Colin Kolasny ’21 shares his experiences in Taipei, Taiwan.
When did you leave for your study abroad and which program are you on? When do you intend to return back to the U.S.?
I left Feb. 8, 2020, and I am on Term in Taiwan. I return back to the United States on June 30.
What does a day in your life look like?
Most days I go get brunch at one of the breakfast restaurants in Wenshan district (where my university is located in Taipei) and have a stroll around the Daoan riverside park. If I’m not busy with class or homework, I’ll often go on hikes around Maokong or other neighboring mountain areas, or to the central and more bustling districts in Taipei like Ximen, Xinyi or Zhongshan. In the evenings I’ll get dinner with friends, have some beers in the Daoan park or go to the Blue Note jazz club.
When the COVID-19 outbreak began, was it something the people around you were concerned about right away? Was there a specific moment when it became real for you?
People in Taiwan have shown concern and adherence to government advice since the beginning of the outbreak in November. I think part of this is due to the culture of selflessness and awareness of public wellbeing that obviously does not exist to the same degree in the West. I think for Taiwan specifically, a global pandemic poses a serious threat, especially when it pertains to China. This is another reason why people took the virus very seriously before it was considered a pandemic. The moment I realized it was a very big deal was when Trump cut off travel from Europe and other countries began to follow suit[…] I did not realize the global impact it was going to have until countries began to close borders.
As the pandemic has progressed, how has the culture, community and country around you responded? How did your host school or program respond?
Taiwan has taken really effective precautions with COVID-19 since before I arrived. As I mentioned, wearing masks in public is already a part of the culture of displaying thoughtfulness towards the health of others, especially the elderly. From the moment I got here, I was encouraged to wear a mask when in large public areas and on public trains and buses. I am required to take my temperature once a day in my dorm and most buildings with large groups of people (nightclubs, shopping malls, government buildings, etc.) require a temperature check and hand wash before entering. My dorm also does not allow outside visitors into the building. At first, these precautions seemed a bit unnecessary, but I quickly realized that they were the exact reasons why Taiwan has been able to control the pandemic.
What made you decide to stay in Taiwan? Have you felt supported by the International and Off-Campus Studies (IOS) office in your decision?
I never considered leaving Taiwan. Since early March, Taiwan has been a safer environment in regards to the virus than the United States. It is currently among the last six countries in the world that still attends classes in person, and that includes all levels of education and the vast majority of universities. I thought it would be foolish to return home to Chicago where I would be at much greater risk of contracting the virus (not to mention the risk of airports and airplanes), forced to stay at home in quarantine and attend class online when I could stay in Taiwan, continue experiencing normalcy in daily life and attend classes in person.
IOS initially issued a request that all study abroad students return home, which made me really upset because it seemed like they weren’t considering my circumstances. However, upon explaining the situation, IOS quickly realized why it makes far more sense for me to continue in Taiwan. Since then, they have reached out and checked in on me, which is a really supportive gesture!
How are you completing your classes?
I still attend all classes in-person. There is really no difference from the beginning of the semester and now, other than the fact that we are now required to sit with one empty chair between each person and wear a mask during class.
What significant differences have you observed between the U.S. and Taiwan’s responses? Has being connected to two different countries impacted your understanding of the global pandemic?
The list of differences between Taiwan’s and the U.S.’s responses to the pandemic is so long. In Taiwan, there is a huge amount of transparency in the government’s response. Information is reported accurately and immediately to the public so that people are well-informed and understand what needs to be done to stop the spread. Donald Trump’s secrecy and concern with his own self-image amidst a human crisis is shameful. I feel ashamed to tell others I am from the U.S. because of the epic failure of our government and our public. Another hugely noticeable difference is the public response. If the Taiwanese public is asked to comply with government advice for the sake of public health, there is no question about whether or not they will do it. If the situation were to escalate to the severity of that in the United States, there would certainly be no protests in front of government buildings demanding the ‘re-opening of the economy’[…] Hoarding toilet paper, masks and other necessities does not happen in Taiwan. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. There are social media movements wherein people with health insurance (who are entitled to three free masks per week) provide masks to people who are unable to get them[…] More broadly, Taiwan is giving billions of dollars worth of aid to other countries being badly hit by the virus.
It certainly is a confusing situation for me, because I feel very proud to be in Taiwan where I feel safe and well-protected by the actions of the public and government. At the same time, I feel worried for my family and friends, my future at home in the U.S. and the well-being of my country.
This interview via email has been lightly edited for length and clarity