TAIPEI – It is around lunchtime that Nancy Chen misses her father the most. For 30 years she ate every day with her parents in their apartment. Her father, despite being partially affected by a stroke, would buy her a cod lunch. If she was fifteen minutes late, he would worry and ask if she was working too hard.
For the first year and a half of the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like Taiwan would be largely unscathed from the devastation unfolding elsewhere. Apart from wearing the almost universal mask, people went about their lives normally.
But Taiwan was caught off guard when the virus arrived. The health system couldn’t handle the number of COVID tests needed and doctors lacked the right medicines. The death toll quickly rose from just 12 to more than 800.
Chen’s father, who died in June, was one of the victims.
“We never thought it would explode like this in Taiwan,” Chen’s husband, Jason Ding, said in an interview at their home in New Taipei City.
They are among 12 bereaved families seeking apologies and 60 million New Taiwan dollars ($2 million) in compensation from the government, saying it was unprepared — despite the pandemic being a year and a half — leading to needless death and suffering .
Lawyers for the families filed their cases on Thursday with the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Executive Yuan, Taiwan’s cabinet. One of the lawyers, Chen Hsueh-hua, said the families want a public settlement because they believe their government has failed them.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, which is under the Ministry of Health, did not immediately respond to questions.
Taiwan’s experience shows how quickly the virus can destabilize healthcare, even if the caseload is relatively low. To date, the island of 24 million people has had 16,465 cases and 848 deaths. Yet the loss cuts just as deeply for any family as anywhere else.
Relatives of victims elsewhere are also looking for answers. A series of lawsuits have been filed in France over shortages of masks and test kits early in the outbreak. The UK government has agreed to launch a public inquiry into handling the pandemic, in part in response to the threat of legal action.
The Taiwanese case is backed by Yaung Chih-liang, a former health minister of Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Nationalists, who have repeatedly attacked the government’s handling of the pandemic.
At the height of the outbreak, Chen was unable to get an ambulance for her mother, who tested positive on May 23 and had a fever. They waited four days for an ambulance.
“It was always busy, you couldn’t even connect,” said Chen, whose parent’s neighborhood was one of the hardest hit areas. “It was really terrifying, it was constantly busy.”
Her father, who was hospitalized a day before her mother started showing symptoms after a second stroke, tested negative for the coronavirus twice. About a week later, his third test was positive.
Chen asked if the hospital had any COVID-19 drugs. The hospital said no, apart from remdesivir, but the doctor was concerned it might interact with the stroke medication. The hospital had no antibody medications used to prevent mild cases from becoming serious, although it may have been too late for her father by then.
“They really weren’t prepared at all. If you look abroad, these things had already happened,” Ding said.
Taiwan was out of antibody drugs against COVID-19 when the outbreak exploded in May, doctors and families said. It wasn’t until June 11 that the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control announced that they had purchased 1,000 doses of antibody treatments. Chen’s father died three days later.
Taiwan had limited supplies of remdesivir, an antiviral from Gilead, which has had mixed results
“There wasn’t enough, you could only get it if you requested it from the central government,” said Su Yi-Fong, a pulmonologist at a hospital in Taipei near one of the hot spots of the outbreak.
In addition, it was not covered by the island’s national health insurance, making it affordable to only a small percentage of the population.
Su said they only had treatments like steroids. “If they needed oxygen, we’d give them oxygen, and if they were really bad, we’d have to intubate them,” he said. “That’s all we could do.”
Chen’s mother was given tocilizumab, an arthritis drug that a doctor suggested as a last resort.
The families in the lawsuit question whether their relatives would have lived if they had been given the antibody drugs early, before they deteriorated.
Chien-Chang Lee, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at National Taiwan University, believes antibody treatments wouldn’t have made a huge difference in deaths, given a culture of caution in prescribing drugs.
Due to Taiwan’s past success, many doctors had no experience treating COVID-19 patients and may not have known when best to use the drug, he added.
As hospitals and morgues were overrun with patients, many people were unable to fulfill their relatives’ last wishes.
Adams Chi, one of the members of the group seeking compensation, watched his mother’s last moments through a cell phone screen outside the room where she was isolated.
After her death, he discovered that he had no choice but to cremate her body. His mother had wanted to be buried next to his father, not cremated, because she was afraid of fire. But the morgue wouldn’t store her body while funeral arrangements were being made, because it didn’t want to keep the COVID-19 victims with the other bodies.
Before dawn on a Tuesday in June, as workers waited to cremate his mother, he shouted to warn of the incoming flames.
“Before the fire comes, tell your loved one, ‘The fire is coming, go! Walk!’ And then they won’t get hurt,” said Chi. “Then the soul won’t be hurt.”
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