A mask sign in Taipei. Taiwan has emerged far better than most countries as the novel coronavirus continues to rage across the world. Photo: Facebook

Many Taiwanese are now fearing a “tsunami” of fresh Covid-19 infections on the island after a group of marines who came down with the novel coronavirus crisscrossed cities and towns before being tracked down and isolated.

The 27 servicemen with an elite expedition fleet of the Taiwanese Navy had just returned from a port call to the Republic of Palau, one of Taiwan’s dwindling diplomatic allies in the southern Pacific. They had been displaying the telltale symptoms of the pneumonia caused by Covid-19 during the voyage.

They subsequently tested positive, almost a week after they disembarked from their ship on April 15 at a port in the southern city of Kaohsiung.

An initial pathological investigation by the island’s health ministry has narrowed the scope of the outbreak and the likely close contacts to those onboard the Panshih, a 20,000-ton fast combat support ship that is the flagship of the fleet. Military and health experts had assured the public that the men could have caught the virus during their port call at Palau or when they were on the high seas in March, and so community outbreaks in Taiwan would be unlikely.

At least 27 sailors onboard the Panshih, one of Taiwan’s largest warships, have come down with Covid-19. Photo: Handout
Masked sailors wave to people when the Panshih returns to Taiwan earlier this month. Photo: Handout

Yet in an alarming U-turn since Monday, Taiwan’s health authorities have scrambled to find the places the men visited in the past six days, following revelations that before their hospitalization, they got out and about despite their worsening symptoms.

The 100-plus locations and retail and recreation establishments that the men patronized are scattered around more than half of Taiwan’s 24 cities and counties and these supermarkets, restaurants, department stores, night markets and barbershops must now be shut for deep cleansing.

Taiwanese papers reported that some of the island’s busiest stations and interchange nodes like Taipei Station, Taipei’s airport express and high-speed train stations in Kaohsiung, Taichung, Taoyuan and Chiayi would also need to be disinfected as a precaution after the men boarded bullet trains and subway trains and used facilities there.

The island’s anti-epidemic command center was also sending text messages to a total of 200,000 residents in these regions who may have come into close contact with the men to remind them to get tested if they show any symptoms.

Taiwanese officials said they relied on big data, footage from surveillance cameras and information about the clusters of mobile phone users in a particular place and at a particular time to determine who may have come into contact with the infected men and who should get the texts and get tested.

But the island’s health minister Chen Shih-chung also appealed to the public not to panic, stressing those receiving the messages may not necessarily have contracted the pathogen and that the government had the responsibility to inform those who may have been exposed to the risk.

So far Taiwan has been largely unscathed by the world-engulfing coronavirus scourge despite its dense population and close proximity to China, the initial breeding ground of the acute respiratory disease.

The self-governed island has an accumulated tally of 422 confirmed cases with only six mortalities as of Tuesday afternoon. Taiwan has won accolades, especially from the United States and European Union and its unofficial allies in Asia, for its early intervention and exemplary response to fend off the viral spillover from China while still keeping its cities on the move.

Its measures are in sharp contrast with the rash of draconian city and community lockdowns enforced throughout China.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen met and inspected the ship since the Covid-19 outbreak.
Tsai appears in the latest issue of Time to share Taiwan’s experience in combating the virus.
Taiwan has been stepping up measures to prevent further outbreaks after at least 27 sailors were infected. Photos: Handouts

But pulmonologists and virologists with the National Taiwan University have sounded the alert that the 27 men who rubbered shoulders with commuters, pedestrians and shoppers in so many cities may pose the highest risk of a local outbreak since the start of the epidemic.

There have also been worries that the virus may have crept into more warships and may strike down more troopers if the spread is not kept in check, at a time when the Chinese military has become more belligerent, dispatching fighters, bombers and vessels on circumnavigation missions that usually breach Taiwan’s airspace and territorial waters since the beginning of the year.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen has also moved to assure people that she had ordered the military to fully cooperate with the health authority to stamp out the virus, and that she would come down hard on anyone who sought to hide infection information. The navy is in hot water amid accusations that the admirals in charge of the expedition fleet ignored reports about the infected marines.

But the health of the top leader was also in the spotlight after reports noting the military’s Chief of Staff, Huang Shu-kuang, having addressed a ceremony for marines from the Panshih on April 15, attended a cabinet meeting at the Presidential Palace convened by Tsai the following day.

In reply, Tsai’s spokesperson stressed that the entire staff at the president’s office and all officials attending meetings chaired by the president had been observing social distancing rules, and that before meeting the president, all guests and officials must go through stringent temperature screening and disinfection as advised by the health ministry. He added that the president’s physicians would keep a close eye on the leader’s condition.

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