In view of China’s zero-Covid chaos, Taiwan seizes the opportunity to open up

The tables of his diner in the Taiwanese capital are teeming with customers, the waiters are full of dishes of squid soup and rice noodles, and there is talk and laughter.

Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like his to remain open despite a spate of Covid infections — affecting more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone — sweeping the island.

Things might have been so different. Until recently, the island had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s company was closed for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, which dealt a blow to its employees — and its bottom line — leaving him “heartbreaking.”

“We were lucky enough to survive and move on,” he said.

But since then, the Taiwanese government has undergone a thorough rethink. What was until recently one of the world’s last zero-covid holdouts has now switched to living with the virus — prompted by the realization that even the strictest contact tracing and quarantine regimes are no match for the highly transmissible Omicron variant, as demonstrated. due to the chaos unfolding across the Taiwan Strait in China

For Chen, it’s a welcome shift that has allowed his company to remain relatively unaffected by the outbreak. While he remains concerned about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies – such as Singapore – that have managed to weather similar mindset changes.

“I think we have to overcome our fears and be careful step by step,” he said.

Oscar Chen, owner of the restaurant Liang Xi Hao in downtown Taipei.

A tale of two cities

Taiwan’s reopening is in stark contrast to Shanghai. There, in a desperate attempt to stick to its zero-covid ideals, China is resorting to increasingly stringent measures in an effort to contain an Omicron outbreak that has infected hundreds of thousands of people.

Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, which is home to a sizable Taiwanese community, have been closed for weeks.

Chaotic scenes of angry clashes between residents of Shanghai and police officers trying to force people into quarantine have received widespread attention in the Taiwanese media, helping public opinion on the island by providing a clear reminder of the sacrifices required by the zero-covid policy.

It’s a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.

“It’s very difficult for him. We don’t talk about it on the political front, but my brother has been in quarantine for 45 days without being able to leave his home. At least he can still order takeaways – in some neighborhoods people can’t and they have to wait for the government to send supplies.”

Taiwan’s reopening isolates China as arguably the last major economy in the world still following a zero-covid policy. Even Hong Kong, which had long clung to the model in a bid to reopen its borders with mainland China, has eased its restrictions after a recent Omicron-powered wave pushed its per capita death rate to the highest in Asia.
That sense of increasing isolation will likely only add to the backlash against the policies in Shanghai and other closed-down Chinese cities, where frustration over what seems like an endless battle is growing. Even as the policy puts a brake on the country’s economy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has rejected any suggestion of a slowdown and pledged to double “steadfastly”.
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in China for a few years, said it was only natural for Taiwan to open up as vaccination rates go up.

Lessons from Shanghai

Taiwan’s reopening is driven in part by a desire to avoid exactly the kind of scenes set in Shanghai — described by Taiwanese Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang last week to reporters as “cruel” and not a model for Taiwan to follow. .

It also reflects a recognition that the dawn of the Omicron variant has left covid-free economies with a choice: either double down like China with increasingly strict measures, or take the opportunity offered by high vaccination rates to open up.

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen opted for the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus on ensuring as much normal life as possible for its residents, rather than aiming for zero infections.

Ironically, it is the freedom the island enjoyed during its long spell of zero-Covid that made that choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president from 2016 to 2020.

“Over the past two years, people here have enjoyed a very free life — they lived normal lives and went to work normally. So we don’t like city closures or mass testing, and we don’t think it’s helpful to control the spread.” love the virus,” Chen said.

Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, had given the milder variant a chance because it “has a very high infectivity, but quite low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, have been fully vaccinated with two injections to date.

“(Taiwanese people) saw the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t really see the need to use city locks to contain the Omicron variant. It’s very difficult, an impossible mission.”

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’s decision is popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they felt Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict lockdown measures imposed in mainland China.

Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in mainland China for a few years, found it unfeasible to eradicate the virus.

“If even after vaccination we still had severe restrictions like in the (Chinese) mainland, it would be very painful and there would be no point in getting the vaccines,” he said.

Chen Chien-jen, Taiwan's former vice president and epidemiologist, says Covid nose

A beacon of hope?

But if Taiwan’s approach is driven in part by a desire to avoid a Shanghai-esque fate, there are also optimists who question whether it could have an effect in the opposite direction — giving hoped to China’s trapped cities that there is indeed a way out of the zero Covid angle.

Chen Chien-jen, who as vice president led Taiwan’s early Covid-19 response, said many Taiwanese were initially skeptical about abandoning the elimination strategy because it had been successful in maintaining low levels of infection for so long. community transfer.

Taiwan had previously only experienced one major outbreak of Covid-19 – in May last year. That time, it banned in-person dining, closed nightspots, and suspended schools to curb the spread. It then managed to keep the number of cases at zero or close to zero until just March 15 of this year.

But as the latest outbreak grew, Taiwanese realized that the island could afford to live with a less severe variant and high vaccination levels.

The rewards are plain to see. The quarantine for overseas arrivals has been reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory scanning of QR codes before entering restaurants and shops has been abolished. Close contacts of confirmed patients now have to quarantine for just three days.

There is another advantage: no more fighting in vain. As Chen put it, “We can see that a zero-covid policy can never reach the goal of completely eradicating the virus in any country.”

Taiwanese mother Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy, believes the government should clarify the rules about school suspension before leaving zero-covid behind.

Skepticism remains

Still, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully prepared to move forward.

Long lines have formed daily at pharmacies in Taipei since early May, as cases rose, as residents rush to buy quick test kits. Many leave empty-handed despite standing in line for hours.

The health ministry has said those without Covid-19 symptoms must first test positive on a rapid test if they want to qualify for a more accurate PCR test, which has only increased demand.

The difficulty of purchasing the test kits has prompted some residents to complain about the authorities’ lack of preparedness.

“It would have been better for the residents to be (prepared) before we started living with the virus,” said a mother named Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy. “Many families still lack access to rapid test kits.”

Other parents fear that their children, who still do not qualify for vaccination in Taiwan, are vulnerable.

“I feel that the government has not taken children into account in their efforts to live with the virus,” said another mother, named Chang, whose two children are in kindergarten. “I’m concerned…I’ve avoided taking my kids to indoor playgrounds, and I only take them to parks when there are fewer people.”

“Right now there are changes to the rules every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be very confusing and it’s better to have a plan.”

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