With its eyes on zero-Covid chaos in China, Taiwan takes the opportunity to open up

The tables at his diner in the Taiwanese capital bustle with customers, waiters bustle with squid soup and rice noodles, and chatter and laughter fill the air.

Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan allows restaurants like hers to stay open despite a wave of Covid infections – which hit more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone – hit the island.

Things could have been so different. Until recently, the island had adopted a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s business was closed for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, dealing a severe blow to its employees – and his profits – which left him “heartbroken”.

“We were lucky to have survived and to abandon it,” he said.

But since then, the Taiwanese government has had a profound rethink. What until recently was one of the last zero-Covid resistance in the world has now changed mentality towards living with the virus, driven by the awareness that even the most stringent contact tracing and quarantine regimes cannot compete with the Omicron variant. highly transmissible, as demonstrated by chaos in the Taiwan Strait in China

For Chen, it’s a welcome change that has ensured that his business can continue relatively unaffected by the outbreak. Although he is concerned about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies, such as Singapore, which have managed to navigate similar mindset shifts.

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

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

A tale of two cities

The reopening of Taiwan has begun strongly at odds with Shanghai. There, in a desperate attempt to cling to its zero-Covid ideals, China is resorting to increasingly stringent measures in an effort to curb an Omicron epidemic that has infected hundreds of thousands of people.

Many districts of Shanghai, where there is a large Taiwanese community, have been closed for weeks.

Chaotic scenes of angry confrontations Shanghai residents and police officers trying to quarantine people have received extensive coverage in the Taiwanese media, helping to influence public opinion on the island by offering a keen reminder of the sacrifices required by zero-Covid policies. .

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

“It’s really hard for him. We don’t discuss it on the political front, but my brother has been quarantined for 45 days without being able to leave the house. At least he can still order takeaways – in some neighborhoods people can’t and have to wait for the government to send. supplies “.

Taiwan’s further reopening isolates China as perhaps the last major economy in the world to still follow a zero-Covid policy. Hong Kong, which had long clung to the model in an effort to reopen its borders with mainland China, also relaxed its restrictions after a recent Omicron-led wave sent its per capita death rate to a certain level. point al highest in Asia.
That sense of growing isolation is likely to only add to the backlash against politics in Shanghai and other stuck Chinese cities, where frustration over what appears to be an endless struggle is mounting. While politics puts a damper on the country’s economy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has rejected any suggestion of easing. pledging to double “unwaveringly”..
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who has lived in China for a few years, said it was natural for Taiwan to open up as vaccination rates rise.

Lessons from Shanghai

Taiwan’s decision to reopen is partly driven by a desire to avoid exactly these kinds of scenes playing in Shanghai – described to reporters last week by Taiwanese Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang as “cruel” and not a model for Taiwan to follow.

It also reflects the acknowledgment that the dawn of the Omicron variant has left zero-Covid economies with a choice: double down like China on increasingly stringent measures or take advantage of the opportunity offered by high vaccination rates to open up.

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing that Taiwan will 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 period of Covid absence that makes that choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, vice president of Taiwan between 2016 and 2020.

“For the past two years, people have enjoyed a very free life here: they’ve lived normally and gone to work normally. So we don’t like city lockdowns or mass testing and we don’t think it’s useful to control the spread of the virus.” Chen said.

Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, the milder variant presented an opportunity as it has “very high infectivity, but rather low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. . To date, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, are fully vaccinated with two shots, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data project.

“(The Taiwanese people) have seen the blockade situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t really think it necessary to use city blocks to contain the Omicron variant. It is very difficult, a mission impossible.”

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 was popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they believed 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, felt it was not possible to eradicate the virus.

“If we still had strict restrictions like in the (Chinese) mainland even after vaccination, it would be very painful and it would make no sense to get the vaccines,” he said.

Former Taiwanese Vice President and Epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen says zero-Covid is

A beacon of hope?

But if Taiwan’s approach is partly driven by a desire to avoid a similar fate to Shanghai, there are also optimists who wonder if it could have an effect in the other direction, providing hope to the blocked Chinese cities that it really is. a way out of the corner Covid zero.

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

Taiwan had already experienced only one major Covid-19 outbreak in May last year. That time he banned in-person meals, closed entertainment venues, and suspended schools to control broadcasting. It therefore managed to keep the number of cases at or near zero until March 15 this year.

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

The rewards are obvious. The quarantine for arrivals from abroad has been reduced from 14 to seven days. The mandatory scanning of QR codes before entering restaurants and shops has been discarded. Close contacts of confirmed patients are now kept in quarantine for just three days.

There is also another benefit: no longer fighting a useless battle. As Chen said: “We can see that the zero-Covid policy will never achieve the goal of totally eliminating the virus in any country.”

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

Skepticism remains

However, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully ready to move forward.

Since the beginning of May, as the number of cases has risen, long queues have formed in front of Taipei pharmacies every day as residents rush to purchase rapid test kits. Many leave their hands empty despite queuing for hours.

The health ministry said those with no symptoms of Covid-19 must first test positive for a quick test if they are to be eligible for a more accurate PCR test, which has only increased demand.

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

“It would have been better for the residents (to be prepared) before they started living with the virus,” said a mother named Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy. “Many families still do not have adequate access to rapid test kits.”

Other parents fear that their children, who are not yet eligible for vaccination in Taiwan, are vulnerable.

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

“Right now, there are rule changes every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be really confusing and it’s best to have a plan.”