Masked commuters walk in an underpass in Taipei. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Taiwan is poised to become one of the world’s largest manufacturers of surgical masks, as it moves to crank out more medical supplies to fortify itself against the spillover of the Covid-19 contagion from mainland China. 

Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang said 60 extra mask-production lines would be added to boost capacity to at least 10 million sets per day, enough for almost half of its population, so that the stringent mask-rationing order currently in place could be relaxed. 

It has been reported that Foxconn and other leading Taiwanese original equipment manufacturers and gadget makers have procured equipment to mass-produce masks at their plants originally designed to assemble electronic components and mobile devices, as they have been lured by government subsidies amid the buoyant demand. 

Panicked Taiwanese began swamping drugstores and convenience stores to snap up masks when the highly infectious respiratory pathogen emanating from the central Chinese city of Wuhan began first arrived on the island at the end of January, when almost a million Taiwanese students, businesspeople and other expats flew home from mainland China for the Lunar New Year break. 

The lemming-like rush to buy and stockpile masks intensified when the island’s tally of confirmed cases surged this month from single digits to 24 in just a little over a week, with one death and two patients treated and discharged.

Masks are snapped up at many drugstores and convenience stores across Taiwan. Photo: CNA

In response, the government has capped the retail price of masks at NT$5 (17 US cents) a pop and imposed a sweeping ban on speculation by shops purveying medical and protective gear. Residents now must enter their particulars into an online registration system and have their quotas allocated before they can buy a limited amount of masks and sanitizers at designated drugstores. 

In the capital city Taipei alone, there now are more than 2,500 people under 14-day compulsory home quarantine.

Disease control personnel disinfect a metro station in Taipei. Photo: CNA

It also reported the first asymptomatic infection case on February 9, in which the patient had not been to mainland China for years, meaning the virus is creeping into local communities and becoming more difficult to trace. 

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center is still looking for those who were served by a 61-year-old taxi driver in Taipei who transported passengers returning from China before developing respiratory symptoms and subsequently testing positive for the virus. He died of sepsis last week. The center is tracing everyone who came into contact with him for Covid-19 screening. The man’s mother, brother and nephew-in-law, who either lived with him or dined with him, all tested positive for the disease.

Authorities believe that a Taiwanese traveler who returned from eastern China’s Zhejiang province with severe coughs and took a ride with the taxi driver was the most likely source of infection, even though the traveler initially tested negative, and whose blood would also be tested to determine if he had developed antibodies. 

A total of 235 people who had close contact with the driver have been identified for testing and quarantine. Among them, 175 tested negative and others are still awaiting results. 

Also, Taipei and densely populated commuter towns in neighboring New Taipei City with well-developed mass transportation networks have been identified as areas most prone to subsequent outbreaks if the epidemic cannot be stopped, according to etiologists and computer scientists with National Taiwan University, Chang Gung University and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. 

Using Google’s PageRank algorithm, the team analyzed daily commute data collected in an island-wide census for an epidemic infection index to rank the risks facing Taiwan’s 353 districts and townships. The study found all districts in Taipei are exposed to higher spread and infection rates than the island’s average levels. 

Taiwan has also extended its travel ban on trips to and from Hong Kong and Macau until the end of April, after Hong Kong declared community outbreaks and cluster infections, an indication of local transmissions of imported cases from mainland China. 

Passengers have their body temperatures checked while boarding a plane to Taiwan. Photo: CNA

More than 70% of flights across the Taiwan Strait and on the Taipei-Hong Kong route, one of the busiest international routes globally and a cash cow for Cathay Pacific, China Airlines and Eva Air, are canceled as of this week. 

Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs has proposed a lump-sum appropriation of NT$2 billion (US$66.6 million) for cash coupons redeemable at retailers, caterers and other service vendors to fire up the economy, which would translate into each citizen receiving between NT$100 and NT$200 in cash.