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Valuing the Future-Present: How to be Taiwan

Elias Formaggia discusses the concept of the future-present, and how, in the context of the pandemic, having prepared for the future would have left us better positioned to deal with it when it became the present.

“Just live in the present” is a phrase which perfectly captures the human tendency to undervalue the future. The sentiment stems from wanting to enjoy oneself, but I want to explore how this overemphasis on the ‘right now’ is harmful to what will one day be the present.

It is no wonder that we, as humans, often disregard the importance of the future; millions of years of evolution have hardwired us to respond to physical stimuli and what we are experiencing in that very moment; it is thus understandable that the future, having no physical manifestation, is hard to value as much as we should. Our current political system also feeds this bias of the present: parties campaign to govern for a short term of 5 years; electable policies do not address how we will address the global issues of the coming decades, but instead, those which promise immediate impact and can be tackled in these fleeting years of power.

Whilst our default psychology and political system can make it difficult to resist a present-centric approach, I believe there is a useful term and mindset which can be employed to lessen this inertia: the ‘future-present’. This term, whilst appearing nonsensical and juxtaposing, captures what is so deeply problematic about our brushing aside the future. It reinforces the fact that the future will one day be the present. And whilst this is obvious, it is easy to ignore. So, by acknowledging that the future will eventually be the day we wake up to and the problems we encounter, we can make a greater conscious effort to make that future-present a better one. 

In the aftermath of the 2003 SARS outbreak, Taiwan took steps to securing a better future-present. Having had one of highest SARS cases per capita in the world, Taiwan realised the imminent threat posed by infectious disease and started to prepare for the inevitable emergence of new, more contagious, and more lethal pathogenic entities. Having set up a temporary command centre in 2003, which had proved effective during the outbreak, Taiwan then founded a National Health Command Centre, of which the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) was a major division.

 As of January 29th 2021, the UK’s COVID cases per capita is over 1484 times higher than that of Taiwan’s, where fatalities are still in the single digits. To what does Taiwan owe its success? An existing infrastructure in which disease control and the prospects of a pandemic have been taken seriously for years. The CECC has proved instrumental in Taiwan’s epidemiological master class. This is partly due to the respect it is afforded by government officials: in times where health security is paramount, the CECC has authority to coordinate works across different government compartments and take the helms of policy making. This has allowed scientists and healthcare professionals to implement effective action to stop the spread of the virus. These actions included prompt restriction on nonessential travel, disinfecting of public areas, and texts to all citizens combatting and fact checking false news regarding COVID-19. Taiwan also introduced an impressive quarantine system in which citizens are paid £27 for everyday they isolate and fines of up to 1,000 times this amount can be issued to those who breach quarantine.

Taiwan’s expert-based approach to fighting COVID has clearly payed off and leads us to question why similar precautions and protocols were not set up in the West. Experts warned of a pandemic over 20 years ago as the understanding of ‘emerging viruses’ improved; factors such as climate change and the close proximity of humans to farm and forest animals meant that it was only a matter of time before a zoonotic event occurred and introduced a life-threatening, highly contagious pathogen into the human population. 

In the early days of what appears to be a successful vaccine rollout, it seems that Britain may crawl its way over the finish line, and pass through the worst of the COVID times. But, as soon as we have successfully dealt with the pandemic, our attention must quickly centre towards the challenges of the coming decades in order to prevent catastrophes of this magnitude. Climate change is finally being realised by many as the pressing issue that it is, but action that reflects its seriousness is still yet to be taken; the rise of antibiotic resistance will only keep getting worse if overuse and inappropriate prescribing continue; in this century we could find ourselves in pre-Fleming times where a routine infection is a death sentence; estimates put the Earth’s population at just under 10 billion by 2050 and a severe food crisis looms; far more effort and research must be pooled towards how we will feed our ever growing global population. There is no shortage of problems coming our way so it is crucial that we divert our focus away from the present and begin to tackle the issues that will define this century, and define our future-present.

Image Credits: Carrie Kellenberger via Taiwan Pride 2009, wikicommons

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