Taiwan learning to live with record COVID cases, as mainland China continues strict controls
Over 40% of all COVID-related deaths in Taiwan have occurred since beginning of this year
Billed a COVID-19 success story as its economy boomed through the pandemic, Taiwan is now battling a record wave of infections as it eases restrictions that had kept outbreaks at bay to start life with the virus.
For the whole of 2021, Taiwan reported less than 15,000 locally transmitted cases. Now, it's registering around 80,000 cases a day — a startling reversal after the effectiveness of its long-standing zero-COVID policy won it international praise.
"We could no longer achieve the goal of zero COVID because it was too contagious," former vice-president Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist, said in a video released by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday. Most cases in Taiwan are of the less severe Omicron variant, with more than 99.7 per cent of cases exhibiting mild or no symptoms, he said.
"This is a crisis but also an opportunity, allowing us to walk out of the shadow of COVID-19 quickly," Chen said.
Despite a peak of infection forecast for this week, the government is determined to end a policy that included largely closing its borders. It has relaxed restrictions, such as shortening mandatory quarantines, in what it calls the "new Taiwan model" — gradually living with the virus and avoiding shutting down the economy.
Unlike some countries where new case spikes overwhelmed medical systems and disrupted everyday life, Taiwan hospital beds earmarked for COVID patients are at 56 per cent occupancy. Shops, restaurants and gyms remain open, and gatherings continue, with mandatory mask-wearing.
Still, the island of 23.5 million people is recording 40 to 50 deaths a day, bringing its year-to-date total to 625 deaths. Deaths stood at 838 from 2020 through to the end of 2021.
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'No real choice'
Former vice-president Chen said Taiwan would be ready to reopen to tourists when 75-80 per cent of the population had received a third vaccination shot. The rate currently stands at 64 per cent.
Taiwan is focusing on eliminating serious illness while easing disruptions, allowing milder cases to see doctors online with home delivery of oral antiviral products.
Opposition parties said the government was ill-prepared, citing an initial shortage of home rapid test kits when cases started spiking last month, and criticized it for moving too slowly to secure vaccines for children under 12.
The surge in cases is now sparking new precautions. Starting this week, classes in Taipei schools were moved online while subway ridership has fallen to about half average levels.
"Taiwan didn't really have a choice. Naturally, we need to move on to coexist with the virus," said Shih Hsin-ru, who leads the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Taiwan's Chang Gung University.
She said the government was not well prepared for the shift away from the zero COVID approach, pointing to the initial shortage of resources, from vaccines to antivirals. But things are looking better after what she described as a "scramble" by the government.
"We are slowly getting back on track," she said. "We are likely to see less impact compared to neighbouring countries."
China relocates hundreds to quarantine
Taiwan's approach stands in contrast with China, where strict measures to control outbreaks predominate despite new reported infection numbers that remain well below levels seen in many Western cities. The capital Beijing reported 48 new cases for Tuesday among its population of 22 million, with Shanghai's population of 25 million seeing fewer than 500 official cases on Monday.
Still, Chinese vice-premier Sun Chunlan called for more thorough measures to cut virus transmission and adhere to the nation's zero-COVID policy during an inspection tour in Beijing, state agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
The situation in Beijing was manageable, but containment efforts cannot ease, she said, according to Xinhua.
In one example of the stringency of Beijing's approach, around 1,800 people in one city neighbourhood were relocated to Zhangjiakou city in the nearby Hebei province for quarantine, the state-backed Beijing Daily reported.
Still in place are instructions for residents in six of the capital's 16 districts to work from home, while a further three districts encouraged people to follow such measures, with each district responsible for implementing its own guidelines.
Beijing had already reduced public transport, requesting some shopping malls and other venues to close and sealing buildings where new cases were detected.
In Shanghai, authorities plan to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a more complete lifting of the two-month-old lockdown from June 1. Even then, public venues will have to cap people flows at 75 per cent of capacity.