New Zealand should learn from the bitter lessons of Taiwan

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Ron Hanson

Ron Hanson

Taipei, June 3, 2021

Response to pandemic is more important than media futility

                                    

                                                Soldiers disinfect a train station in Taiwan (Reuters Photo)

It was the world’s most stringent Covid defence.

Despite being located a metaphorical stone’s throw away from the original epicentre, with frequent direct flights to Wuhan at the time of the pandemic’s outset, Taiwan had made it almost a year and a half with the barest of social restrictions and only a handful of deaths.

The economy was booming and the international press coverage was glowing.

Suddenly, Taiwan is engulfed in an island-wide outbreak as its government and people are put to the test.

So what went wrong and what are the lessons for New Zealand?

Seeds of its undoing

Within Taiwan’s success lay the seeds of its undoing.

While the world grappled with Covid, Taiwan had so effectively kept out the virus that its people were enjoying a post-pandemic lifestyle. Concerts were packed, bars were brimming with patrons and crowds thronged at Taiwan’s legendary religious festivals.

The trouble was that the pandemic had not ended. When the border was finally breached, the virus found fresh virgin territory and a people that had let down its guard. Taiwan had kept up vigilance for so long, but sure enough, complacency had crept into the country.   

The facts of the border failure are becoming well known. The Novotel Airport Hotel, where China Airlines pilots and aircrew quarantine, had broken the rules by housing quarantining pilots, flight crew and domestic tourists in the same building.

Crucially, on April 15, 2021, Taiwan relaxed its quarantine rules for unvaccinated pilots and aircrew. The quarantine period was reduced from five to three days.

 
A lone Taiwanese at a road junction in Taipei (Photo by Frankie Chang)

Increasing cases of infection

Almost like clockwork, by the end of April, we were reading reports of an alarming number of pilots who were testing positive for the highly infectious UK variant after they had finished quarantine. And then we started to learn of the locations they had visited.

When we learned in early May that a Covid-positive pilot and flight attendant had broken the rules of their self-health monitoring period by visiting a sports bar, we knew that we might have some trouble on our hands. Mask-wearing had been mandated in most public indoor settings, but the places where people did not wear masks were restaurants, nightclubs, and bars. Naturally one cannot wear a mask while they eat and drink.

And then the virus made it into the hostess clubs of Wanhua, Taipei’s oldest district.  Euphemistically known as “tea houses” or colloquially as “grandpa shops,” these are establishments where middle-aged women serve a typically older clientele.

Reluctant ‘Patrons’ err

The degree to which these businesses provide sexual services reportedly varies. Regardless, one can be sure that not a lot of social distancing was going on. And critically, patrons of these establishments are reluctant to cooperate with the authorities. Contact tracers are dealing with a list of people who have tested positive but left false contact details.  

Then there is the issue of vaccines. Taiwan, due to its geopolitical situation and the ongoing vaccine crunch, has struggled to obtain vaccines.

In February, Health Minister and Director of the Central Epidemic Command Center Chen Shih-Chung alleged that Taiwan’s deal with BioNTech (the company that partnered with Pfizer to produce the vaccine currently being rolled out in New Zealand) had been scuttled due to political pressure. According to Chen, this was after the contract had been finalised and Taiwan had already signed.

Following Chen’s allegation, BioNTech quickly issued a statement saying that it was committed to providing Taiwan with the vaccine, but no deal has materialised.


Taiwan Metro running almost empty (Photo by Frankie Chang)

 

Beijing accused of interference

It offers to help by providing Taiwan with free Chinese-made vaccines, while simultaneously bombarding the Island with fake news and disinformation in what local experts are referring to as a pressure test.” 

But Taiwan insists on dealing directly with BioNTech, citing safety, political and legal risks.

Taiwan was safe. Why not wait for a different vaccine to arrive, or Taiwan’s own vaccine candidates to come to fruition?

Taiwan didn’t have enough doses to protect its frontline workers, and what little was here was in danger of expiring. With the recent outbreak, vaccine hesitancy has been dealt a decisive blow. But the failure to use those initial shipments in a timely fashion looks foolish in retrospect.

The government is now scrambling to increase its testing capacity.

Phenomenal public response

In many ways, this is a citizen-led response, with the Taiwanese people outpacing the government, keeping one step ahead. For example, Taipei recently banned indoor dining, but even before that many businesses were voluntarily closing or refusing to allow in-house dining. The restaurants were empty as people chose to order deliveries or take out.

What we are seeing instead is being referred to as a “voluntary lockdown.”  

At the beginning of the pandemic, Taiwan achieved elimination without a lockdown.

But now, we are dealing with a highly infectious new variant and widespread community transmission. Are we even pursuing elimination now? Or are we moving into a strategy of suppression and mitigation while we wait for vaccines?

So as I write, the number of Covid success stories has dwindled.

Human folly is a universal experience and in the course of the pandemic, it is bound to rear its head. To be sure, New Zealand has huge advantages. Chief among them are low population density and an effective approach of snap lockdowns.

Throughout the pandemic, most New Zealand-based international pilots and aircrew have been completely exempt from quarantine. This is despite repeated warnings from epidemiologists and internal documents raising concerns by aircrew and staff about the risk the policy poses to colleagues and the public.

If the Taiwan experience shows anything, it is that there is a constant need to reassess the response, look for holes and weaknesses, and plan for contingencies.

I also hope that New Zealanders can look to the Taiwanese public for inspiration.

Ron Hanson is Editor ‘White Fungus,’ an international arts magazine, based in Taiwan. The above article has been published courtesy Asia Media Centre, Wellington.
The above story has been sponsored by

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