Taiwan’s Covid-19 relief after recent cluster scare

There are few places in the world that have battled against the Covid-19 pandemic better than Taiwan. Whilst countries worldwide are struggling with rising cases, lockdowns and disruption of the economy, Taiwan, like New Zealand, has been able to nullify and control the low number of its confirmed cases.

And in recent times, Taiwan’s success has been epitomised by its latest successful fight against the virus.

In January, Taoyuan General Hospital (TGH) was the scene of a rare cluster outbreak within the island nation, as a doctor working at the northern Taiwan hospital tested positive for the Covid-19 virus. The physician had been treating infected patients and began developing a fever and a cough. A nurse colleague shortly also tested positive for the virus.

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Taoyuan General Hospital in Taoyuan City was the site of a community outbreak of Covid-19 earlier in 2021. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This prompted a mass evacuation of patients and staff, hospital buildings were disinfected, and around 5,000 people were put into quarantine, the largest ever number for Taiwan.

But according to local reports, Taoyuan City Mayor Cheng Wen-tsang said the city is no longer considered an epidemic area, following Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) announcement that all staff members at the hospital had tested negative for the virus.

Taiwan has recorded less than 1,000 cases with nine deaths from a population of over 23 million, with the majority of cases imported.

The success has been attributed to Taiwan shutting its borders early that began back in January last year, during the first outbreak of the virus. Taiwan also quickly banned foreign visitors and imposed mandatory quarantine for all Taiwanese residents returning from overseas. Other factors include diligent contact tracing and widespread mask-wearing.

Taiwan has been able to avoid lockdowns and keep most of its businesses and schools open. For 2020, there was a 2.98 percent GDP growth in the economy; its highest since 2018 and higher than China’s in nearly 30 years.

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President Tsai Ing-wen

In December, President Tsai Ing-wen says “unity” within Taiwan has been key to the success in combating the virus.

The outbreak in Taoyuan marked the first domestic cases of 2021. However, in December, a New Zealand pilot was accused of being responsible for causing the first local case since April.

The New Zealander, who was a cargo pilot at EVA Air, had tested positive for the virus in December but had remained asymptomatic. He had previously been associated with a cluster of pilots who had the virus and had flown into Taiwan from the United States. It was reported the pilot had ignored facemask regulations in the cockpit and was also uncooperative with Taiwanese health officials. He tested positive on December 20.

Two days later, a woman in her 30's was found to have the virus too, which allowed health authorities to trace the outbreak back to the pilot. The pair had reportedly used the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) public transport system, including during rush hour, and visited shopping areas together. It was reported the pilot had infected several others too.

The pilot was fired from his position at EVA Air for violating operational principles, whilst he was fined 300,000 Taiwanese dollars ($14,832) by local authorities.

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A New Zealand pilot, flying for EVA Air, was the first community case confirmed in Taiwan since April 2020. The pilot tested positive on December 20, 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) fined the airline 1 million Taiwanese dollars ($49,410) for failing to ensure its employees followed the prevention measured but in place to combat Covid19.

Pilots and cabin staff who return to Taiwan are meant to stay in quarantine for three days and are not tested unless they show symptoms. But since the incident, the CECC has suggested the isolation period would be increased to seven days.

Despite Taiwan’s impressive success in containing the virus, the island has become a problem for the World Health Organisation (WHO). Taiwan isn’t allowed to be a member of WHO, due to its complicated relationship with China. Members of the United Nations (UN) can gain membership at WHO, but the UN doesn’t recognise Taiwan.

Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), is a self-governed democracy. But China claims Taiwan is a breakaway province that belongs to them, and one day reunification will occur with the mainland.

Last March, an aired video interview showed a Hong Kong journalist questioning a WHO official, asking if they would reconsider letting Taiwan join the organisation. The official appeared to ignore the question and end the call, leading to questions about the influence China has over the health organisation.

In 1949 the end of the civil war saw both Taiwan and China have separate governments. Since Beijing had tried to lessen Taiwan’s international activities. Only 15 states recognise Taiwan as the ROC worldwide. But despite this, Taiwan’s democratically elected government has strong commercial relationships with many other countries.

- Asia Media Centre