TAIPEI, Taiwan — As China seeks to curb its worst coronavirus outbreak yet using its same playbook of confining tens of millions to their homes, people in Taiwan are watching closely — often in horror.
Testimonies of the lockdown trauma in Shanghai are swiftly censored in China, but they have received widespread attention in Taiwan as it decides how to deal with its own soaring infections. The mounting economic cost and human toll of China’s unflinching “zero covid” policy has given ammunition to those who believe a shift to living with the virus is inevitable.
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Taiwanese living in China’s largest city, with a population of 25 million, have appeared on TV shows and in magazine features speaking about their experiences trying to secure food deliveries amid the outbreak and their plans to return to Taiwan once they can travel freely again.
Much like China, Taiwan has been slow to join parts of the world that have given up on trying to stamp out the virus — the island has continued with a strategy of extensive contact tracing, strict border controls and mask mandates to cut off transmission.
Unlike Beijing, however, the government in Taipei has this month made it clear that it will gradually shift toward a strategy of mitigation, despite facing its largest outbreak to date. On Friday, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) reported record-breaking case numbers for the 12th consecutive day, with 11,974 new local infections bringing Taiwan’s accumulated confirmed cases to over 100,000.
Despite the surge, Taiwan has resisted imposing lockdown measures similar to those it adopted last May during its first major outbreak of the pandemic. During a visit to the CECC on Tuesday, Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, said that prevention measures had entered a new stage where the goal is to “clear serious cases, manage mild cases, and lead a normal life,” while continuing to improve access to testing and vaccination rates among the elderly.
Opinion polling suggests the Taiwanese public is evenly split on abandoning a zero-covid approach featuring lockdowns and quarantines. A survey of 1,071 people released Tuesday by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found that, when asked about implementing a “coexistence” policy, 46.3 percent were against the idea while 45 percent were for it. (The foundation did not ask about a gradual phasing out of restrictions.)
That the two record-breaking outbreaks in China and Taiwan happened at the same time has naturally become part of the debate, according to Li Jung-Chang, founder of Quickseek, a research firm that tracks Taiwanese public opinion.
His analysis found that debates about living with the virus in Taiwan and local discussion about strict lockdown measures in Shanghai rise and fall in tandem. What’s more, 80 percent of posts and articles on Taiwanese social media about the situation in Shanghai were critical, with about half of comments saying the city’s coronavirus control measures were “violent” and “lack human rights.”
“It’s proof to people in Taiwan that zero covid is no longer possible,” and that the question instead is how to live with the virus, Li said.
The debate is far from over, however, and many in Taiwan have expressed concern about the current surge in cases. Not only are the authorities racing to increase vaccination rates among the elderly and avoid overwhelming the health-care system, but they also face the delicate task of helping the public adjust to a new normal of seeking medical care only when necessary.
Chiu Wei-Ting, 28, a nurse working in a Taipei emergency room, said that the past week had been exhausting as the outbreak caused patient numbers to double. “There were so many people,” she said. “Most of them didn’t need to come to the hospital because they only had mild symptoms, but many people wanted to come to feel secure.”
For Hung Shao-Hua, the 30-year-old founder of a marketing company in Taipei, her main concern after recently testing positive was how her family and colleagues reacted. She had only mild symptoms but that didn’t stop her relatives from making regular checks on her. Her aunt cried when she discovered Hung was infected.
“Many people are still not mentally prepared for living with the virus. We basically didn’t have it for two years, and now it’s suddenly everywhere,” she said.
Taiwan is taking a gradual approach to opening. Quarantine times for close contacts have been reduced from seven days to three and a system of QR codes for contact tracing is being replaced with an app that uses Bluetooth to identify and automatically notify those who have been near a positive case. But the requirement to wear masks in public remains, and the government has yet to announce a timetable for opening borders, meaning all arrivals are still required to quarantine for 10 days.
For much of the pandemic, the island democracy of 24 million has been a covid-control success story. It implemented restrictions on travelers from Wuhan, China, as early as January 2020 and kept the virus at bay for almost a year before the outbreak last May, which was brought under control within two months.
Since then, the government has been working to raise a vaccination rate that had lagged behind those of most developed nations. About 80 percent of the population has now received two doses, with 60 percent boosted, but the government remains concerned about improving coverage among the vulnerable elderly population, with only 72 percent of those over 75 being fully vaccinated as of Monday.
Taiwanese officials have also been much more willing than their counterparts in China to acknowledge findings that omicron, while highly transmissible, tends to cause less-severe illness than earlier variants. Premier Su Tseng-chang told local media last week that because 99.5 percent of cases in the current outbreak had no or mild symptoms, there was less urgency than previously. “We will not lock down cities like Shanghai did, but we also won’t remove our masks or stop taking virus prevention measures,” he said.
Taiwan’s vision of itself as a free and open society, starkly different from China’s top-down paternalistic model of governance, also makes it difficult for the government to reimpose restrictions on movement.
Ho Mei-Shang, an adjunct fellow in biomedical science at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s scientific research academy, has been advising the government that zero covid is no longer possible. “It is difficult to restrict people in Taiwan. We are used to being free,” she said.
When Chu Chang-Ming, 73, heard on Thursday that there was a positive case in his building at a residence for veterans in New Taipei City, what worried him the most wasn’t the possibility of catching the virus, but that he might once again be unable to leave his room.
During last May’s outbreak, Chu was confined to the compound for nearly three months. “I supported zero covid at that time because I thought I might die since we didn’t have vaccines,” he said. “Now I’m fully vaccinated and boosted, I feel more relaxed.”
“I believe it’s better to open up,” Chu said. “If we lock down like Shanghai, it’ll drive people crazy.”
Vaccines: Will you need a fourth coronavirus vaccine? Officials have authorized a second booster shot for Americans 50 or older. A vaccine for young kids could also be available soon.
Mask guidance: A federal judge struck down the mask mandate on transportation, but covid-19 cases are on the rise again. We created a guide to help you decide whether to keep wearing face coverings. Most experts say you should keep wearing on planes.
Tracking the virus: See the latest coronavirus numbers and how the omicron variant has spread across the world.
At-home tests: Here’s how to use at-home covid tests, where to find them and how they differ from PCR tests.
New CDC team: A new team of federal health scientists has been formed to provide real-time data on the coronavirus and future outbreaks — a ‘National Weather Service’ to forecast what’s next in the pandemic.
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