Eyes on Covid-free chaos in China, Taiwan seizes chance to open up

The tables at his restaurant in the Taiwanese capital are filled with customers, waiters bustle with plates of squid soup and rice noodles, and conversation and laughter fill the air.

Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like his to remain open despite a wave of Covid infections – reaching more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone – sweeping across the island.

Things could have been so different. Until recently, the island had taken 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 blow to its employees – and its bottom line – that the left “heartbroken”.

“We were lucky to have survived and moved on,” he said.

But since then, Taiwan’s government has undergone a profound reassessment. What was until recently one of the world’s last Covid-zero strongholds has now changed its mindset to live with the virus – driven by the realization that even the toughest contact tracing and quarantining regimes are no match for the highly transmissible Omicron variant. , as demonstrated by the chaos unfolding in China’s Taiwan Strait

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

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

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

A tale of two cities

Taiwan’s reopening is in stark contrast to Shanghai’s. There, in a desperate effort to cling to its zero Covid ideals, China is resorting to increasingly stringent measures in an attempt to contain an Omicron outbreak that has infected hundreds of thousands of people.

Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, where there is a sizable Taiwanese community, have been closed for weeks.

Chaotic scenes of furious clashes between Shanghai residents and police trying to force people into quarantine have received widespread coverage in Taiwanese media, helping to sway public opinion on the island, offering a direct reminder of the sacrifices required by Covid-zero policies. .

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

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

The reopening of Taiwan still isolates China as perhaps the last major economy in the world still following a zero Covid policy. Even Hong Kong, which has long clung to the model in an effort to reopen its borders with the Chinese mainland, has been loosening its restrictions after a recent wave driven by Omicron sent its per capita death rate skyrocketing to an all-time high. from Asia. .
This growing sense of isolation is likely to only add to the backlash against politics in Shanghai and other closed Chinese cities, where frustration is building in what appears to be a never-ending struggle. Even as the policy puts the brakes on the country’s economy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping brushed off any suggestion of a truce, vowing to bend “uncompromisingly”.
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in China for a few years, said it was only natural for Taiwan to open up to rising vaccination rates.

lessons from shanghai

Taiwan’s decision to reopen is driven in part by a desire to avoid exactly the kind of scene taking place in Shanghai – described to reporters last week by Taiwan’s Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang as “cruel” rather than a model. for Taiwan to follow.

It also reflects recognition that the emergence of the Omicron variant has left Covid-19-free economies with a choice: to double like China in increasingly stringent measures or take the opportunity offered by high vaccination rates to open up.

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus on ensuring a normal life for its residents as much as possible, rather than aiming for zero infections.

Ironically, it’s the freedom the island enjoyed during its long period of zero Covid that made this choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president from 2016 to 2020.

“For the past two years, people have enjoyed a very free life here – they have lived normally and gone to work normally. So we don’t like city lockdowns or mass testing and we don’t find it helpful 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 very 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 doses, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.

“(The Taiwanese people) have seen the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t really consider it necessary to use lockdowns in cities to contain the Omicron variant. It’s very difficult, 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 felt Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict lockdown measures imposed in mainland China.

Jeff Huang, a resident of Taipei who lived in mainland China for a few years, felt that eradicating the virus was not feasible.

“If we still had severe restrictions like on the (Chinese) mainland, even after vaccination, it would be very painful and there would be no point in getting the vaccines,” he said.

Former Taiwanese vice president and epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen says Covid-zero is

A beacon of hope?

But if Taiwan’s approach is partly driven by a desire to avoid a fate similar to Shanghai’s, there are also optimists who wonder if it could have an effect in the opposite direction – giving hope to closed Chinese cities that there really is a way out of the world. zero-covid corner.

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

Taiwan had previously only experienced one major outbreak of Covid-19 – in May of last year. At that time, it banned in-person meals, closed entertainment venues and suspended schools to control the spread. It then managed to keep the case numbers at or near zero until March 15 of this year.

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

The rewards are clear to see. The quarantine for overseas arrivals has been reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory scanning of QR codes before entering restaurants and stores has been ruled out. Close contacts of confirmed patients are now required to be quarantined for just three days.

There is another benefit as well: no longer fighting a futile battle. As Chen put it: “We can see that the zero Covid policy can never achieve the goal of totally eliminating the virus in any country.”

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

Skepticism remains

Still, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully prepared to move forward.

Since the beginning of May, as the number of cases has increased, long lines have formed in front of pharmacies in Taipei daily as residents scramble to purchase rapid test kits. Many leave empty-handed, despite queues for hours.

The Health Ministry said those without symptoms of Covid-19 must first test positive in a rapid test to be eligible for a more accurate PCR test, which has only increased demand.

The difficulty in acquiring test kits led some residents to complain about the authorities’ lack of preparation.

“It would have been better for the residents (to be prepared) before we started living with the virus,” said a mother surnamed 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 like the government has not considered children in their move to live with the virus,” said another mother surnamed Chang, whose two children are in kindergarten. “I’m worried… I’ve avoided taking my kids to indoor playgrounds and I 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 very confusing, and it’s better to have a plan.”

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