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Taiwan, now trying to ‘live with Covid’, has 80,000 cases a day

Covid testing in Taiwan Thomson Reuters/ANN WANG
A person gets a coronavirus test in Taipei on May 24. Taiwan is ending its zero-Covid policy
  • Infections are rising fast as the zero-Covid policy is relaxed
  • Taiwan had 15,000 cases in the whole of 2021
  • Island to reopen borders when 75-80 percent have had third shot

Taiwan was billed as a coronavirus success story when its economy boomed in the pandemic, but the island is now battling a record wave of infections as it eases restrictions to start “living with the virus”.

For the whole of 2021, Taiwan reported under 15,000 locally transmitted cases. It is now registering around 80,000 cases a day – a startling reversal after its zero-Covid policy won international praise.

“We could no longer achieve the goal of zero Covid because it was too contagious,” said Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist and the former vice president, in a video released by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday.

Most cases in Taiwan are of the less severe Omicron variant, with more than 99.7 percent of cases exhibiting mild or no symptoms, he said.

“This is a crisis but also an opportunity, allowing us to walk out of the shadow of Covid-19 quickly,” Chen added.

Although infections are expected to peak this week, the government is determined to end a policy that included largely closing its borders. It has relaxed 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 spikes in new infections overwhelmed medical systems and disrupted everyday life, Taiwan hospital beds earmarked for Covid patients are at 56 percent occupancy. Shops, restaurants and gyms remain open, and gatherings continue, with mandatory face masks.

Still, the island of 23.5 million people is recording 40 to 50 deaths a day, bringing its year-to-date total to 625 deaths. Deaths totalled 838 from 2020 to the end of 2021.

‘No real choice’

Taiwan’s model stands in contrast to the approach in China, where strict measures to control outbreaks have led to the prolonged lockdown of Shanghai – a city of 25 million people – and movement curbs in numerous cities including Beijing.

Chen said Taiwan would be ready to reopen to tourists when 75 to 80 percent of the population had received a third vaccination shot. The rate is currently 64 percent.

Taiwan is focusing on eliminating serious illness while easing disruptions, allowing patients with milder cases to see doctors online and have oral antiviral products delivered to their homes.

Chen Shih-chung, the minister of health and welfare, said on Monday that Taipei aims to keep the death rate below 0.1 percent. The current rate is around 0.06 percent and rising slowly.

Opposition parties have accused the government of being ill-prepared for the policy shift, citing an initial shortage of home rapid-test kits when cases started spiking last month. They have also criticised President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration for moving too slowly to secure vaccines for children under 12.

The surge in cases is sparking new precautions. Starting this week, classes in Taipei schools were moved online while subway passenger numbers have fallen to about half average levels.

“Taiwan didn’t really have a choice. Naturally, we need to move on to co-exist with the virus,” said Shih Hsin-ru, who leads the Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections at the island’s Chang Gung University.

She said the government had not been well prepared for the shift away from the zero-Covid approach, pointing to the initial shortage of resources from vaccines to antivirals. But things were looking better after a “scramble” by the authorities, she added.

“We are slowly getting back on track,” she said. “We are likely to see less impact compared to neighbouring countries.”