Taiwan is learning to live with record COVID cases, as mainland China pursues strict controls

Considered a COVID-19 success story as its economy boomed during the pandemic, Taiwan is now grappling with a record wave of infections as it eases restrictions that had prevented outbreaks from starting life with the virus.

For the whole of 2021, Taiwan reported less than 15,000 locally transmitted cases. Today, it is recording around 80,000 cases a day – a surprising reversal after the effectiveness of its longstanding zero COVID policy won it international praise.

“We couldn’t achieve zero COVID anymore because it was too contagious,” former Vice President Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist, said in a video released by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday. Most cases in Taiwan are of the milder variant of Omicron, with more than 99.7% of cases showing mild or no symptoms, he said.

“This is a crisis but also an opportunity, allowing us to quickly emerge from the shadow of COVID-19,” Chen said.

Despite a spike in infection predicted for this week, the government is determined to end a policy that included largely closing its borders. He eased restrictions, such as shortening mandatory quarantines, in what he calls the “New Taiwan Model” – living with the virus gradually and avoiding shutting down the economy.

Unlike some countries where new spikes in cases have overwhelmed medical systems and disrupted daily life, Taiwan’s hospital beds reserved for COVID patients are 56% full. Shops, restaurants and gyms remain open and gatherings continue, with mandatory mask wearing.

However, the island of 23.5 million inhabitants records 40 to 50 deaths per day, bringing its total since the beginning of the year to 625 deaths. Deaths amounted to 838 from 2020 to the end of 2021.

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“Not really a choice”

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 rate is currently 64%.

Taiwan is focusing on eliminating serious illnesses while mitigating disruption, allowing milder cases to see doctors online with home delivery of oral antivirals.

Opposition parties have said the government was ill-prepared, citing an initial shortage of rapid home test kits when cases began to rise last month, and criticized it for moving too slowly to secure vaccines for children under 12 years old.

People line up to take a COVID-19 test at a new drive-thru site on Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan, May 20. Officials say Taiwan must learn to coexist with the virus, given the highly infectious Omicron variant. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

The spike in cases is now prompting new precautions. Starting this week, classes in Taipei schools moved online while subway ridership fell to around half of average levels.

“Taiwan didn’t really have a choice. Naturally, we have to continue to coexist with the virus,” said Shih Hsin-ru, who heads the Research Center for Emerging Virus Infections at Chang Gung University in Taiwan.

She said the government was not well prepared to move away from the zero COVID approach, pointing to the initial shortage of resources, from vaccines to antivirals. But things are looking up after what she described as a government “scramble”.

“We are slowly getting back on track,” she said. “We will probably see less impact compared to neighboring countries.”

China moves hundreds of people into quarantine

Taiwan’s approach contrasts with China, where strict epidemic control measures prevail despite new reported infection numbers that remain well below levels seen in many Western cities. The capital Beijing reported 48 new cases among its population of 22 million on Tuesday, with Shanghai’s population of 25 million registering fewer than 500 official cases on Monday.

Still, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan called for deeper measures to reduce virus transmission and adhere to the national zero-COVID policy during an inspection tour in Beijing, the agency reported on Tuesday. ‘State.

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 stringency of Beijing’s approach, around 1,800 people from one area of ​​the city were moved to Zhangjiakou city in neighboring Hebei province to be quarantined, the report said. Beijing Daily, state-backed.

Instructions are still in place for residents of six of the capital’s 16 districts to work from home, while three other districts are encouraging people to follow such measures, with each district responsible for implementing its own guidelines.

Beijing had already reduced public transport, asking some shopping malls and other places to close and seal buildings where new cases had been detected.

In Shanghai, authorities plan to keep most restrictions in place this month, before a more comprehensive lifting of the two-month lockdown from June 1. Even then, public places will have to limit the flow of people to 75% of their capacity.