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Using cross-cultural skills to protect public health

Rotary Peace Fellow leads teams that screen travelers in Taiwan to prevent the spread of COVID-19


All around the world 5-11 October, Rotarians and alumni will share their experiences, network with each other, and exchange ideas for staying involved in Rotary. Find out how to Celebrate Reconnect Week.

Taiwan’s government responded quickly at the start of the year to the spread of COVID-19, adopting rigorous safety measures at its airports and enlisting public health experts who were multilingual to help screen tens of thousands of travelers each day.

“Everything was very messy” at first, says Chia-Yin Lin, a Rotary Peace Fellow who served as an assistant quarantine specialist at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport.

“The most difficult part was persuading all the panicked passengers to follow our health authority’s regulations,” she says. “It required a blend of cross-culture communication and public health knowledge, and I was given both during my Rotary Peace Fellowship.”

Chia-Yin Lin, center, with the 2011-13 Class of Peace Fellows at International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan

Lin, who has a background in political science, public health, and food security, got her master’s in peace studies at the International Christian University in Tokyo, Japan, in 2013. In addition to Mandarin, she’s fluent in English, Japanese, and Spanish and speaks a little French and Vietnamese.

At the airport, Lin led teams of fellow health experts in establishing the screening protocols for people arriving from other countries. Lin interviewed people about their health status and travel history, arranged for quarantines for travelers suspected of having COVID-19, arranged to transport infected travelers to hospitals, and handled other communication needs.

As many nations grappled with lockdowns, business closures, and economic effects, Taiwan was able to avoid dramatic disruptions to daily life while limiting COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Lin points out that Taiwan’s experience with the SARS outbreak in 2003 “helped immensely.” The nation knew firsthand the seriousness and urgency of the situation and what measures were essential to control the spread of a dangerous new pathogen.

“Overhearing their normal conversations and knowing they weren’t overly worried about the virus made my job feel meaningful.”

But Lin credits her Rotary Peace Fellowship with giving her the international communication skills she needed to succeed at her role. The two-year program “improved my international exposure,” she says, and helped her language skills as she studied alongside peace fellows from diverse backgrounds.

This proved to be very important for her duties at the airport.

People can often be bewildered when they land in a place where a different language is spoken. But that fear and confusion were compounded by the additional safety measures. Lin says she calmed arriving passengers by speaking to them in their own language and explaining what would happen next.

Lin and the team of experts screened between 20,000 and 30,000 passengers every day in March, working 12-hour shifts, with no breaks. But the system proved critical to slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Taiwan until mid-April, when the nation closed its borders to air traffic and the emergency work ended.