The tables at his dinner in the capital of Taiwan are full of customers, the waiters are full of squid dishes and rice noodles and the conversation and laughter fill the air.
Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like its own to stay open despite a wave of Covid infections – which hit more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone – sweeping the island.
Things could have been so different. Until recently, the island had adopted a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s operation closed for more than two months during the last major epidemic in May 2021, dealing a blow to its employees – and in essence – which left him “sad heartbroken.”
“We were lucky to survive and move on,” he said.
For Chen, it is a welcome change that has ensured that his business can continue to be relatively unaffected by the outbreak. Although he is still worried about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies – such as Singapore – that have managed to navigate similar changes in mentality.
“I think we need to overcome our fears and walk carefully step by step,” he said.
A story of two cities
Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, where there is a large Taiwanese community, have been locked up for weeks.
It is a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.
“It’s really hard for him. We’re not talking about it on the political front, but my brother is in quarantine for 45 days without being able to leave his house. At least he can still order packaged food – in some neighborhoods people they can not and must wait for the government to send supplies. “
Lessons from Shanghai
It also reflects the recognition that the rise of the Omicron variant left the economies of zero Covid with a choice: either to double like China in increasingly stringent measures or to seize the opportunity offered by high vaccination rates to open up.
Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus on ensuring the normal life of its people as much as possible, rather than aiming at zero infections.
Ironically, it was the freedom the island enjoyed during Covid Zero’s long period of zero that made this choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president between 2016 and 2020.
“For the last two years, people have been enjoying a very free life here – living normally and going to work normally. So we do not like lockdowns in the city or mass trials and we do not think it is helpful to control the spread of the virus.” said Chen.
Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, the milder variant had presented an opportunity as it has “very high infectivity but fairly low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. To date, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, have been fully vaccinated with two vaccines, according to Our World in Data at Oxford University.
“(The people of Taiwan) have seen lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing and we do not really consider it necessary to use lockdown in the city to limit the Omicron variant. It is very difficult, a mission impossible.”
Chen said Taiwan should now focus on increasing coverage of Covid-19 boosters, as well as increasing the distribution of antiviral drugs and rapid diagnostic kits to the community.
The government decision was popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they believed Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict quarantine measures imposed in mainland China.
Taipei resident Jeff Huang, who lived in mainland China for a few years, felt it was impossible to eradicate the virus.
“If we continued to have severe restrictions like in the (Chinese) mainland, even after the vaccination, it would be very painful and it would not make sense to get the vaccines,” he said.
A beacon of hope?
But if Taiwan’s approach is driven in part by a desire to avert a fate like Shanghai, there are also optimists wondering if it could go in the opposite direction – giving hope to locked-in Chinese cities that there really is a way out of the corner of zero. Covid.
Chen Chien-jen, who led Taiwan’s early response to Covid-19 as vice president, said many Taiwanese were initially skeptical of abandoning the eradication strategy because it had been successful for so long in maintaining a low transmission rate in community.
Taiwan had previously experienced only one major Covid-19 outbreak – in May last year. At that time it banned personal meals, closed entertainment venues and suspended schools to control the spread. He then managed to keep the case numbers at zero or close to zero until March 15 of this year.
But as the latest outbreak grew, the Taiwanese realized that with a less severe variant and higher vaccination rates, the island could afford to live with it.
The rewards are clear. The quarantine for arrivals abroad was reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory scanning of QR codes before entering restaurants and shops has been abolished. Close contacts of confirmed patients are now required in quarantine for just three days.
There is another benefit: we can no longer fight in vain. As Chen put it: “We can see that Covid zero policy can never achieve the goal of eradicating the virus in any country.”
However, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully prepared to move forward.
Since the beginning of May, as the number of cases increases, long queues form daily in front of pharmacies across Taipei as residents try to buy emergency kits. Many leave empty-handed despite queuing hours.
The Ministry of Health said that those who do not have symptoms of Covid-19 must first be positive in a rapid test in order to be eligible for a more accurate PCR test, which has increased demand.
The difficulty of purchasing test kits has prompted some residents to protest the authorities’ lack of preparedness.
“It would be better for the residents to (be prepared) before we move on with life with the virus,” said a mother named Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old son. “Many families still do not have adequate access to rapid test kits.”
Other parents fear that their children, who are still not eligible for vaccination in Taiwan, are vulnerable.
“I feel the government has not considered the children in their move to live with the virus,” said another mother, Chang, whose two children go to kindergarten. “I’m worried … I have avoided my children going to indoor playgrounds and I only go to parks when it is less crowded.”
“Right now, there are changes to the rules every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be really confusing and it’s better to have a plan.”