TAIPEI, Taiwan — The calls come at night time, when Taiwan’s vice chairman, Chen Chien-jen, is often at house in his pajamas. Scientists search his recommendation on the event of antiviral drugs. Well being officers ask for steerage as they examine an outbreak of the coronavirus on a navy ship.
Like many world leaders, Mr. Chen is preventing to maintain the coronavirus at bay and to foretell the course of the pandemic. He’s monitoring infections, pushing for vaccines and testing kits, and reminding the general public to clean their palms.
However not like most officers, Mr. Chen has spent his profession making ready for this second — he’s a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist and an skilled in viruses.
That have has thrust Mr. Chen from behind the scenes to the forefront of Taiwan’s response to the disaster. He has embraced his uncommon twin position, utilizing his political authority to criticize China for initially making an attempt to hide the virus even because the scientist in him hunkers down to investigate traits in transmission.
All over the world, public well being consultants routinely spar with political leaders over how the virus spreads and the prices and advantages of lockdowns. Mr. Chen, says that as vice chairman, solely details inform his insurance policies.
“Proof is extra vital than enjoying politics,” he mentioned in a current interview in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei.
Now within the closing weeks of his time period, Mr. Chen’s legacy as vice chairman could also be formed by Taiwan’s success.
Mr. Chen, 68, along with his frizzy grey hair and a toothy smile, is understood affectionately in Taiwan as “elder brother,” and many individuals credit score him with serving to the island keep away from the large-scale infections and deaths from the coronavirus which have overwhelmed many nations.
As a prime well being official through the SARS disaster of 2003, he pushed a sequence of reforms to organize the island for the subsequent outbreak, together with constructing isolation wards and virus analysis laboratories.
Taiwan’s early preparations put it in a robust place when the virus hit, and the island has earned widespread reward for its response. It has up to now reported about 400 confirmed instances and 6 deaths, far fewer than many nations.
Chong Ja Ian, an affiliate professor of political science on the Nationwide College of Singapore, mentioned Mr. Chen had a mixture of “political clout and technical experience” that was efficient in Taiwan, a society the place he mentioned there was sturdy belief in science and respect for medical professionals.
Now Mr. Chen hopes Taiwan can play a number one position in serving to the world get better from the virus and restart financial development. He’s overseeing efforts to develop a vaccine and produce instruments like speedy coronavirus testing kits.
“Taiwan can’t stand by when different nations are in nice hazard,” he mentioned.
Mr. Chen maintains the bookish method of a analysis scientist and is basically unaccustomed to the eye. He has made a profession out of staying out of political fights, even refusing to affix the governing Democratic Progressive Get together that’s led by President Tsai Ing-wen.
“He’s a scholar; he truly doesn’t care a lot concerning the energy recreation,” mentioned Chen Chi-mai, a deputy prime minister who as a public well being pupil within the 1990s took an epidemiology class from Mr. Chen and stays a detailed buddy. “He’s in style as a result of he’s impartial.”
The president has deployed Mr. Chen as a number one voice to foyer for higher recognition for Taiwan on the worldwide stage, together with pushing for membership within the World Well being Group.
Mr. Chen is now on the middle of a worldwide battle over the narrative about how the virus unfold worldwide.
He says Taiwan tried to warn the W.H.O. in late December concerning the potential for the virus to unfold from individual to individual however was ignored. The W.H.O. has rejected the accusation, saying Taiwan merely requested data from the well being company however didn’t situation any warning.
Mr. Chen has seized the second, denouncing China’s efforts to dam Taiwan from becoming a member of the W.H.O. and calling on nations all over the world to check the “Taiwan mannequin” of controlling the outbreak.
Mr. Chen’s prominence has made him a frequent goal of criticism by mainland Chinese language commentators, who’ve accused the federal government of utilizing the pandemic to hunt independence for Taiwan, which China’s authorities considers a part of its territory.
“He wears the clothes of professionalism however deviates from the rigorous precision of science and blatantly speaks nonsense and fabricates rumors,” mentioned a current commentary by Xinhua, China’s official information company. “The character of it’s significantly vicious.”
Mr. Chen laughs on the criticism.
“China needs to be targeted extra on Covid-19 management fairly than politics,” he mentioned.
From a younger age, Mr. Chen was surrounded by politics. He’s the son of a strong county chief in southern Taiwan and mentioned he shortly developed an appreciation for the artwork of compromise.
“From my father, I discovered that politics doesn’t imply folks must battle towards one another to the dying,” he recalled in an interview in 2016 with Taiwan’s official Central Information Company. “As soon as folks get stranded in such a confrontation, they’ll continuously discover fault with one another.”
For a lot of his profession, he made some extent of avoiding politics, as a substitute specializing in his past love, the pure sciences. He earned a doctorate in epidemiology and human genetics from Johns Hopkins College in 1982, and have become an authority in hepatitis B in addition to ailments related to arsenic publicity.
On the top of the SARS outbreak, which contaminated 671 folks and killed 84 folks in Taiwan, Mr. Chen was tapped to be well being minister.
On the time, the federal government confronted a disaster of confidence after the authorities sealed a contaminated hospital with greater than 1,000 folks inside. The transfer triggered panic and a few folks inside the power, satisfied that they or their loves ones had the virus, tried to kill themselves.
“We noticed folks leaping out of home windows,” Mr. Chen recalled. “It was actually chaotic.”
After working to include SARS, Mr. Chen led Taiwan in its efforts to organize for the subsequent outbreak. The federal government established a catastrophe administration middle, elevated manufacturing of protecting gear and revised the infectious illness legislation, amongst different measures.
Mr. Chen returned to tutorial life till 2015, when Ms. Tsai, then a presidential candidate, tapped him to be her working mate.
As vice chairman, Mr. Chen has confronted different challenges. He tackled pension reform, prompting protests from civil servants over cuts. A Catholic, he visited the Vatican 3 times as vice chairman, angering Beijing, which has urged the Vatican to chop diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
He has supported same-sex marriage, which turned authorized in Taiwan final 12 months, regardless of criticism from different Christians.
Largely, he saved a low profile. However in late December, amid the primary studies of a mysterious pneumonia rising within the Chinese language metropolis of Wuhan, about 600 miles northwest of Taipei, he jumped into motion, fearful about the potential of an epidemic.
Mr. Chen shortly ordered the authorities to display vacationers from mainland China and to isolate folks displaying signs of the virus. By Jan. 21, the primary case had arrived in Taiwan, and the federal government quickly started rationing masks.
After an outbreak on a navy ship, he urged officers to check greater than 700 crew members with the hope of amassing information for a research on asymptomatic sufferers.
On Could 20, Mr. Chen will step down as vice chairman. He plans to return to academia and says the coronavirus will probably be a spotlight of his analysis.
Daily round 7 a.m., Mr. Chen goes to church, the place mass has been canceled due to the virus.
“I pray to have the braveness to alter what we will change,” he mentioned, noting the trouble to provide higher checks, medication and vaccines. “Now we have to simply accept what we can’t change.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting, and Albee Zhang and Wang Yiwei contributed analysis.