Taiwan’s brush with covid – update

Heading in a better direction

July 2021

The news that Pizza Hut has launched a “cilantro century-egg pig’s blood cake topping” in Taiwan is enough to make anyone celebrate. It’s almost as good as the news about the virus.

The story so far: After 17 months when the island was almost completely covid free (practically the only infections were people returning from overseas, who were quarantined on arrival), Taiwan finally succumbed in the middle of May 2021. Suddenly there were 16 cases in a day. A few days later there were more than 500.

How did the Taiwanese respond?

Before the surge in infections everyone was used to wearing face masks and washing their hands regularly. That helped slow the spread. When numbers suddenly started to climb, mask wearing was made compulsory at all times outside – even doing exercise. When the ‘feels-like’ temperature is above 40ºC, that’s not easy.

Large numbers of businesses closed, many voluntarily. Restaurants either closed or offered only takeaway food. Most public buildings closed. The supermarkets and stores that remained open, including convenience stores and street food-stalls, were told to register all customers, via SMS or by writing their names and phone numbers on a list. Most took customers’ temperatures for good measure too.

In June, supermarkets introduced tighter restrictions. Customers could only use them every other day, depending on the last digit of their ID card: odd one day, even the next.

Buses, which used to come every few minutes, travelled almost empty for the first few weeks as everyone stayed home. Then their frequency was cut so they only came once an hour, and even then most were empty. All offered free hand-sanitiser. Metro trains ran half as frequently and travellers on all public transport had to register.

A few weeks after the surge began, a Taiwanese woman returned from Peru and during her home isolation infected several others with the Delta variant, the first time it had been identified on the island. The entire town where she lived was shut down for several days and the law was changed so that ALL arrivals must now quarantine for 14 days in government facilities or dedicated hotels – usually at the traveller’s expense.

Since May, the period of restrictions has been repeatedly extended.

As I write this, on 1 July 2021, it is due to end in just under two weeks – almost exactly two months after it started. Whether or not this date will hold is uncertain, of course. And there is still a large loop-hole to worry about when most businesses have not adopted a work-from-home policy. Bosses don’t trust their staff, apparently.

Is that a light at the end?

But thanks to all these measures, the number of new cases has fallen to fewer than 50 a day, out a population of 24 million. The source of infection for the majority of these is now known, and all are subject to rigorous contact tracing.

Unlike most places, other than China, New Zealand, Australia and a few other countries, the Taiwanese approach seems to be to try to eradicate the virus. Learning to live with it, and vaccinating people, which has been the strategy in the US and Europe, is not the route Taiwan appears to be taking.

There are two reasons. First, with so few cases, a zero infection rate looks achievable – and relatively soon. This has lots of benefits. It’ll cost less and it’ll allow everyone to get back to normal, which has huge economic advantages. In the 17 months Taiwan was virus free, the economy boomed.

The second reason is vaccines. Taiwan has been developing its own because it has difficulty accessing those made by international firms. Beijing has tried to block Taiwan’s vaccine access, with some success. Thankfully, both the US and Japan each provided several million doses to Taiwan, and these are mostly being issued to the vulnerable.

I’ve arranged a lunch date with a good pal on 28th July. It’s in my diary in pencil in case I need to change it. But the odds are looking good that we’ll get together.

……. update…… though the number of infections has continued to fall, our lunch wasn’t possible.