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Island Nation: Hoping shows how workers and patients responded to hospital lockdown during SARS crisis

Ricie Fun
Taiwanese actor Ricie Fun plays an inquisitive journalist in Island Nation: Hoping.

There’s a riveting new TV series about a deadly and highly contagious airborne virus coming from China. Seven thrilling episodes dramatize fearful patients, uncaring politicians, a brave journalist, and heroic and angry health-care workers. But this show isn’t about COVID-19. Rather, Island Nation: Hoping revolves around the 2003 SARS outbreak in Taiwan.

The spread of SARS in Taiwan resulted in staff and patients being trapped inside a hospital in Taipei as politicians and bureaucrats squabbled over jurisdiction.

Pancouver spoke to series producer Isaac Wang in advance of free screenings of an episode of Island Nation: Hoping at TAIWANfest Toronto on August 26 and Vancouver TAIWANfest on September 3.

Through a Mandarin-language translator, Wang said that people were unaware of the SARS outbreak in China when it first erupted. Unlike in the more recent outbreak of COVID-19, he stated, China was able to conceal this information from the world for months.

“That’s why none of the countries knew anything about this virus,” Wang said.

On April 22, 2003, the World Health Organization disclosed that there had been 3,947 probably cases and 229 deaths around the world from SARS. While people had died by that time in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, and Canada, there were no recorded deaths in Taiwan on that date and only 29 probable cases.

However, a paper published in Emerging Infectious Diseases reported that a new cluster began that day at Hoping Hospital. That led to an onslaught of new cases. Officials then locked down the hospital in response to a public panic.

In Island Nation: Hoping, the tragedy unfolds in “Poh-Ai Hospital”. Workers risk their lives treating sick patients.

”All the medical problems we had in our public-health system had political reasons behind them,” Wang said.

Watch the English-subtitled trailer for Island Nation: Hoping.

Political conflict underscored SARS crisis

The series reveals the intense conflicts between the then Democratic Progressive Party president, Chen Shiu-ban, and the then mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou. Ma, a member of the rival Kuomintang, was later president of Taiwan from 2008 to 2016.

“They were having a really unhealthy political dispute during the epidemic episode of SARS when there was an emergency,” Wang said. “A political competition actually complicated everything about the public-health sector.”

Ma’s party pursues a more conciliatory relationship with the People’s Republic of China across Taiwan Strait. This continues as China claims the independent country of Taiwan as a long-lost province. Wang pointed out that in 2003, Chen was heading a newly established party created in what was then a young democracy. Ma, on the other hand, represented a party that previously ruled Taiwan with an iron fist for decades until martial law was lifted in the late 1980s.

“We want Taiwanese citizens to remember exactly what happened 20 years ago because of the blurring relations and understanding we have between the two governments,” Wang said.

Since the SARS fiasco of 2003, Taiwan dramatically improved its pandemic-response plan, setting the stage for its widely lauded efforts in 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Island Nation: Hoping
In 2003, workers and patients were forced to remain inside a hospital during a deadly SARS outbreak.

Since 2016, Democratic Progressive Party president Tsai Ing-wen has been in power. The next election is scheduled in January 2024.

Wang revealed that it hasn’t always been easy finding cast members for the programs. That’s because many actors worry about playing roles that will alienate the Beijing government, resulting in them being blacklisted in China.

According to Wang, Taiwan has a “really strong rival that is always trying to interfere with our politics”.

Watch the trailer for Island Nation.

Island Nation serves no political party

Island Nation: Hoping is a companion series to Island Nation. Shot in the same tension-packed way, it’s a dramatic TV show about the early days of Taiwanese democracy.

Its first two seasons focused on politicians in the early to mid 1990s.

“When we wanted to launch our show on streaming platforms, we encountered difficulties,” Wang said, “because they are afraid of losing the Chinese audience—or, I think, make China feel offended.”

Wang is working on a third season of Island Nation, which will focus on the years from 1996 to 1999. It will dramatize the first democratic presidential election in 1996, as well as the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis when China conducted a series of missile tests.

One of those depicted in Island Nation is former president Lee Teng-hui. He earned the nickname Mr. Democracy in the West for ushering in democratic elections in Taiwan in the wake of China shooting pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Wang acknowledged that Lee is well-regarded as the founding father of Taiwanese democracy. He also described Lee as “highly intelligent”. However, Wang insisted that no politician in Island Nation is presented in a black-and-white manner.

“Our series is not serving any political party’s interest in Taiwan,” Wang emphasized. “Our series is dedicated to telling Taiwanese citizens about what exactly happened 30 years ago in consolidating our democracy.”

Watch Island Nation’s Mandarin-language trailer.

TAIWANfest Toronto will present an episode of Island Nation: Hoping with English subtitles at 5 p.m. on August 26 at Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). Vancouver TAIWANfest will present the same episode at 5 p.m. on September 3 at the Annex (823 Seymour Street). All TAIWANfest events are free. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia. SARS erupted in China in late 2002. An earlier version misstated the first cases as occurring in 2003.

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Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.