Military disinfections have been extended in public areas and transportations across the island particularly in Taipei, following an increasing number of domestic Covid-19 cases, May 26, 2021. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto / Ceng Shou Yi

Previously insulated from the Covid-19 pandemic, Taiwan now suddenly finds itself engulfed in twin health and political crises. 

Over the past 11 days, Taiwan has recorded daily new cases of more than 100. The island added 542 local infections on Tuesday (May 25) and another 633 on Wednesday, with the total caseload breaking 6,000, a meteoric rise from the less than 4,000 recorded in early May.

In response, Taiwanese authorities have extended sweeping community lockdowns, school closures and bans on public gatherings to mid-June.

Adding to the panic, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday that there were at least 78 confirmed patients and carriers of the pathogen flouting mandatory isolation rules and moving around the capital city of Taipei, the worst-hit area in the current flare-up. The news sent shockwaves across the island. 

Taiwan’s reversal of fortunes from being a global role model of Covid control to the latest cautionary tale on the risks of complacency has been trumpeted by many mainland Chinese media outlets and netizens.

Still, the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office has extended a helping hand, with Chinese vaccines and medical supplies on offer – even though it is debatable if the announcement is propaganda or comes with political strings attached. 

The office’s spokeswoman Zhu Fenglian said on Tuesday in Beijing that “copious amounts” of homegrown shots from Chinese drugmakers Sinopharm and Sinovac had long been primed for the island and could be shipped at any time if its government requested.

She added that the mainland stood ready to deploy a team of experts and paramedics to help Taiwan’s hospitals, which are now swamped with Covid-19 patients. Some who are in stable condition have been sent to quarantine hotels or makeshift wards, according to local reports. 

The Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma, the sole Greater China Region distributor of the West’s most widely-injected vaccine developed by German drugmaker BioNTech, has also reportedly reached out to the island for talks to supply shots.

Fosun’s exclusive shipment rights of the sought-after shots were not recognized by Taiwan earlier this year in the latter’s failed bid to source them directly from Germany. The island’s Health Ministry later criticized Fosun for allegedly sabotaging the sale. 

A masked cleaner walks past a deserted street in Taipei. The capital city is the hardest-hit place in the ongoing resurgence. Photo: Facebook
Paramedics in hazmat gear at a testing center in Taipei. Photo: Handout

The mainland city of Xiamen, situated in the southeastern province of Fujian that lies off the west of Taiwan, has even suggested taking shots on Chinese hospital and supply ships to as close as 12 nautical miles off Taiwan to inoculate Taiwanese ferried from the island via speedboats. 

China’s offer comes at a time when Taiwan desperately lacks vaccines. Its own mass immunization drive languishes, with only about 1% of its 24 million population fully vaccinated. The island, following its BioNTech setback, has secured a scant supply of alternative shots from AstraZeneca. 

On Tuesday, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-jo told the island’s semiofficial Central News Agency that the city’s remaining stocks could only supply injections to about 20 people. This triggered an outcry and correction from the Health Ministry, which said that the island’s remaining doses were around 20,000. 

The dire situation has not, however, changed the attitude of President Tsai Ing-wen’s ruling, independence-tilting Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council has called Beijing’s offer “hypocritical” and an elaborate ploy.

The council said despite the “grandstanding” and empty words, Beijing had never contacted the island through official communication channels for formal discussions about donations or shipments.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her DPP government have been standing firm against seeking help from China, although some local officials have been asking for shots from across the Taiwan Strait. Photo: Handout

Beijing has predictably hit back.

It called Taiwan’s stalled purchase of vaccines from American drugmaker Moderna politically motivated when there were supplies from the mainland at its doorstep. Chinese critics have claimed America, which until earlier this year imposed a global ban on vaccine exports, had left the island it claims as a democratic ally in the lurch.

The Nikkei quoted a top US diplomat in Taiwan today saying Washington is in no hurry to send vaccines to the island, noting its infection numbers remained comparatively low compared to other virus-hit nations, although the report said talks on the issue are ongoing.

The state-backed tabloid Global Times has compared Beijing’s “benevolence” in offering to aid Taiwan to the DPP government’s “malevolence” seen in the island’s China-specific mask export ban early last year, when they were initially scarce in China in the early phases of the pandemic. 

Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province that must be brought back into its fold, by war if necessary. If Beijing’s real goal is to drive a wedge between Taiwanese politicians and between central and local governments with its offer of help, the tactic appears to be working. 

In an open revolt against Taipei, Lin Ming-chen, the governor of the central Nantou county and a member of the Beijing-friendly opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), has sought to bypass the Health Ministry and directly contact Fosun for vaccine supplies.

However, preliminary talks for 300,000 shots to help Nantou stave off a viral spillover from Taipei may still be thwarted as Taiwanese President Tsai on Wednesday refused to delegate discretionary powers to local governments to source vaccines independently. 

Another KMT member, Yang Cheng-wu, who is in charge of the outlying islets of Kinmen that are less than 30 minutes by ferry from China’s Xiamen, has decided to press ahead with his plan to buy jabs and supplies directly from the mainland. 

An empty pedestrian crossing in Taipei’s usually bustling Xinyi central business district. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

The debate on whether to accept Beijing’s offer continues to divide Taiwanese society, which is already growing weary of restrictive Covid containment measures.

Tsai announced on Tuesday that a new batch of 410,000 doses from AstraZeneca would arrive this week and that the island’s indigenously developed shots would soon be cleared by watchdogs for expanded trials and emergency use.

She said those who already received their first injection would be given priority and that by August the island could have a stockpile of 10 million doses, without elaborating further. 

Read more: Taiwan braces for worst yet Covid-19 outbreak