By Yimou Lee
TAIPE (Reuters) – With the success story of COVID-19 as its economy blossomed through the pandemic, Taiwan is now battling a record wave of infections as it loosens the constraints that have kept cases away from starting life with the virus.
For the whole of 2021, Taiwan reported less than 15,000 locally transmitted cases. It now records about 80,000 cases a day – a stunning reversal as the effectiveness of its long-standing zero-COVID-19 policy has won international acclaim.
“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 Sunday by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Most cases in Taiwan are of the less severe Omicron variant, with more than 99.7% of cases having mild or no symptoms, he said.
“This is a crisis but also an opportunity, which allows us to quickly get out of the shadow of COVID-19,” Chen said.
Despite the peak of the contamination forecast for this week, the government is determined to end a policy that largely included closing its borders. It has eased restrictions, such as shortening mandatory quarantines, on what it calls the “new model of Taiwan” – gradually living with the virus and avoiding a shutdown of the economy.
In contrast to some countries where new cases have flooded medical systems and disrupted daily life, Taiwan hospital beds for COVID-19 patients are 56% full. Shops, restaurants and gyms remain open and rallies continue, with the obligatory use of a mask.
However, the island of 23.5 million inhabitants records 40 to 50 deaths per day, bringing the total from the year to date to 625 deaths. The death toll rose to 838 from 2020 to the end of 2021.
“NO REAL CHOICE”
Taiwan’s approach contrasts with China, where strict epidemic control measures have led to a prolonged lockdown in Shanghai – a city of 25 million – and traffic restrictions in many cities, including Beijing.
Former Vice President Chen said Taiwan would be ready to reopen to tourists when 75-80% of the population had received a third vaccine. The percentage at the moment is 64%.
Taiwan is focusing on eradicating serious diseases while alleviating disorders, allowing milder cases to see doctors online with home delivery of oral antivirals.
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said Monday that Taiwan aims to keep its mortality rate below 0.1%. The current rate is around 0.06% and is rising slowly.
Opposition parties have stated they will not run in the by-elections, citing an initial shortage of home rapid test kits when cases began to rise last month and criticized it for being too slow to provide vaccines for children under 12 years of age.
The increase in cases is now triggering new precautions. As of this week, lessons in Taipei schools have been transferred online, with subway passenger traffic falling by about half on average.
“Taiwan had no real choice. Of course, we have to coexist with the virus,” said Shih Hsin-ru, who heads the Center for Emerging Viral Infection Research at Taiwan’s Chang Gung University.
He said the government was not well prepared for the shift from the zero COVID approach, pointing to the initial shortage of resources, from vaccines to antivirals. But things look better after what he described as a “fight” by the government.
“We are slowly getting back on track,” he said. “We are likely to see less impact compared to neighboring countries.”
(Report by Yimou Lee · Edited by Kenneth Maxwell)