A COVID-19 success story has been billed as its economy has grown through the epidemic, Taiwan is now battling record waves of infection as it eases restrictions on bay outbreaks to start life with the virus.
Throughout 2021, Taiwan reported less than 15,000 infections locally. Now, it registers about 80,000 cases a day – the effectiveness of its long-running zero-covid policy is a striking contrast after it gained international acclaim.
“We can no longer achieve the goal of zero Kovid because it was so contagious,” said Chen Chien-jen, a former vice president and epidemiologist, in a video released by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday. In most cases in Taiwan a less severe omikron variant, in more than 99.7% of cases mild or no symptoms, he said.
“It’s a crisis but an opportunity that allows us to quickly get out of the shadow of the Covid-19,” Chen said.
Despite being at the top of the transition forecast for this week, the government is determined to end a policy that included closing the border. It has relaxed restrictions, such as shortening the mandatory quarantines, which it calls the “new Taiwan model” – to gradually live with the virus and avoid shutting down the economy.
Unlike some countries where the new case spike overwhelms the medical system and disrupts daily life, Taiwanese hospital beds occupy 56% of the allotted for covid patients. Shops, restaurants and gyms are open and gatherings continue, including the wearing of mandatory masks.
Still, the island of 23.5 million people is recording 40 to 50 deaths a day, with a total of 625 deaths so far this year. The death toll from 2020 to the end of 2021 stands at 838.
‘No real choice’
Taiwan’s stance is in stark contrast to that of China, where tough control measures have resulted in prolonged lockdowns in Shanghai – a city of 25 million people – and numerous cities, including Beijing.
Former Vice President Chen says Taiwan would be ready to reopen for tourists if 75-80% of the population receives a third vaccination shot. The rate currently stands at 64%.
Taiwan is focusing on eliminating serious illness while reducing disruption, allowing mild patients to see doctors online, including home delivery of oral antiviral products.
On Monday, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said Taiwan’s goal was to keep the death rate below 0.1%. The current rate is about 0.06% and is slowly increasing.
Opposition parties have stated they will not run in the by-elections, but have criticized the government for slowing down the number of cases, citing an early shortage of test kits and the slow pace of immunization for children under 12.
The rise in cases is now creating new warnings. As of this week, classes at Taipei schools were moved online when subway ridership dropped to about half the average level.
“Taiwan really had no choice. Naturally, we have to move forward to coexist with the virus,” said Shih Sin-ru, head of the Emerging Viral Infections Research Center at Chang Gung University in Taiwan.
He said the government was not well prepared to move away from the zero covid system, pointing to the initial shortage of resources from vaccines to antivirals. But things are looking much better after what he described as a “shock” by the government.
“We’re slowly getting back on track,” he said. “We will see less impact than neighboring countries.”