Taiwan learns to live with record number of COVID cases as mainland China continues strict controls

Taiwan, which was billed a COVID-19 success story as the economy boomed during the pandemic, is now battling a record wave of infections as it eases restrictions that had kept outbreaks at bay from starting life with the virus.

In all of 2021, Taiwan reported fewer than 15,000 locally transmitted cases. Now it records about 80,000 cases a day — a surprising turnaround after the effectiveness of its long-standing zero-COVID policy has made it internationally acclaimed.

“We were no longer able to 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 percent of cases having mild or no symptoms, he said.

“This is a crisis, but also an opportunity, allowing us to quickly walk out of the shadows of COVID-19,” Chen said.

Despite a spike in the infection forecast for this week, the government is determined to end a policy that largely involved closing borders. It has eased 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 the number of new cases overwhelmed medical systems and disrupted daily life, Taiwan’s hospital beds dedicated to COVID patients have an occupancy rate of 56 percent. Shops, restaurants and gyms will remain open and gatherings will continue, with masks required.

Still, with 23.5 million people, the island records 40 to 50 deaths per day, bringing the total to date to 625 deaths. The death toll was 838 from 2020 to the end of 2021.

VIEW | Why WHO says China’s COVID-19 strategy is untenable:

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China needs to move away from its current strategy to completely eliminate COVID-19 and show some respect for people’s rights, said Mike Ryan, the leader of the World Health Organization’s emergency program.

‘No real choice’

Former Vice President Chen said Taiwan will be ready to reopen to tourists when 75-80 percent of the population has received a third vaccination. Currently, the percentage stands at 64 percent.

Taiwan focuses on eliminating severe illness and alleviating disruption, 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 rapid home testing kits as cases began to mount last month, and criticized it for acting too slowly to get vaccines to children under 12.

People line up on May 20 to get a COVID-19 test at a newly established drive-through site at Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan. Officials say Taiwan needs to learn to deal with the virus, given the highly contagious Omicron variant. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The increase in the number of cases is now leading to new precautions. As of this week, classes in Taipei schools have moved online, while the number of travelers on the subway has fallen to about half the average level.

“Taiwan didn’t really have a choice. Of course we have to move on with the virus,” said Shih Hsin-ru, head of the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at Chang Gung University in Taiwan.

She said the government was not well prepared for the shift in 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 will probably see less impact compared to neighboring countries.”

China moves hundreds to quarantine

Taiwan’s approach is in stark contrast to China, where strict measures to control outbreaks are prevalent, despite newly reported contamination rates that remain well below the levels of many western cities. Beijing, the capital, reported 48 new cases on Tuesday among its 22 million residents, while Shanghai’s 25 million residents saw fewer than 500 official cases on Monday.

Still, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan called for more thorough measures to reduce virus transmission and adhere to the nation’s zero-COVID policy during an inspection tour in Beijing, state agency Xinhua reported Tuesday.

A man jogs past buildings in the Central Business District (CBD) on Tuesday amid the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing. A senior party official said China must maintain its strict containment measures. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The situation in Beijing was manageable, but containment efforts cannot ease, she said, according to Xinhua.

In an example of the rigor of Beijing’s approach, about 1,800 people in an urban district were moved to the city of Zhangjiakou in nearby Hebei province for quarantine, the state-backed Beijing Daily reported.

There are still instructions for residents of 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 being responsible for implementing its own guidelines.

Beijing had already reduced public transport and had asked a number of shopping malls and other locations to close and lock down buildings where new cases were discovered.

In Shanghai, authorities plan to keep most restrictions in place this month, before lifting the two-month-old lockdown more fully from June 1. Even then, public locations will have to limit people flows to 75 percent of capacity.

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