A sudden Covid-19 resurgence in Taiwan threatens to spiral into a crisis, catching the self-ruled island off guard at a time post-pandemic optimism and complacency had taken hold.
Until now the island had been hailed as a Covid containment model after it largely eradicated the disease with nearly no community spread about one year ago.
Taiwan logged a new daily high of 333 local infections on today (May 17), a rise from Sunday’s tally of 206. The uptrend is stirring trepidation as only 29 cases were recorded on Friday.
Although the island’s total caseload still stands at a remarkably modest 2,017, there are rising fears of worse to come as new highly contagious variants including from the UK and India start to spread throughout the region.
Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who to date has ridden high in popularity ratings for leading the island’s Covid-19 response, is now being grilled for not scrambling medical staff to emerging outbreak hotspots and lock down Taipei neighborhoods until last weekend.
During a media briefing on Sunday, Chen told the island’s semi-official Central News Agency (CNA) that 10% of residents in Taipei’s major residential district of Wanhua could have come into contact with the virus.
He said the virus was the mutant strain from Britain based on the preliminary results of an overnight testing blitz as well as mathematical and epidemiological projections. Wanhua was grappling with a growing cluster of people who came down with the virus after dining in a teahouse there.
Chen also announced a controversial plan to transfer patients with light or no outward symptoms to quarantine facilities and “newly-built secondary facilities” to free up space, especially beds in ICUs and negative pressure wards, at key hospitals across Taipei and Taoyuan.
CNA cited health officials as saying that patients receiving treatment for more than 10 days and who were in a stable condition could be discharged early and sent to these facilities. But other Taiwanese papers including Apple Daily Taiwan speculated that the island may need to build makeshift field hospitals.
The latest outbreak of local cases was believed to have been ignited by a problematic quarantine arrangement at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport’s Novotel Hotel, where aircrew members from at-risk countries were not strictly segregated from the rest of the hotel’s occupants, letting the virus to leak into local communities.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen signed orders on the weekend to reinstate some of the most draconian and sweeping anti-Covid measures seen last year. These include capping indoor gatherings and dinners at five persons in the capital city and its environs, with police on the lookout for rule-breakers.
All foreigners will be banned from entering for a month starting from Wednesday.
All eyes are now on Tsai and her aides following the revelation that the family members of one of the president’s male assistants had dined with an infected person.
As a precaution, 68 of his colleagues at Tsai’s office have been isolated, with the entire compound being thoroughly disinfected, according to the CNA and Liberty Times.
Tsai’s spokesperson has confirmed the cancelation of most scheduled events for president and her deputy for the next two weeks and that all non-essential workers at the Presidential Palace and Tsai’s official residence would work from home.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-jo also ordered restaurants, nightclubs, karaoke and massage parlors to shut since Sunday. Ko, a doctor by profession, warned that current efforts would not wrap up until after two to three weeks and warned his city could slip into an India-like Covid abyss if it could not head off further spikes within a week.
On Monday, he appealed for an immediate voluntary lockdown. The island’s threshold for triggering the highest tier of disease control response such as city-wide lockdowns is a 14-day daily moving average of 100 new local cases.
The viral spillover from Taipei has already reached Kaohsiung, the island’s second-largest city, as well as Hsinchu, Keelung, Changhua and Tainan, where local infections have been reported.
An infected person in Kaohsiung is facing legal action after he lied to doctors and said his daughter was abroad to help her elude mandatory quarantine. She later also developed symptoms, but still went out and about before being tracked down by police.
Some central and southern rural counties like Nantou and Chiayi have also imposed bans on travel to Taipei, fearing their underfunded hospitals and clinics could be overwhelmed if hit by any surges in cases.
What is spreading even quicker than the virus across the island is panic buying of masks and even toilet paper rolls. This has triggered a rare publication by Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-chang of the stocks of key supplies on the island.
Su said over the weekend that Taiwan had stockpiled 800 million masks and 570,000 bottles of medical alcohol and Taiwanese food manufacturers could churn out 120,000 packets of instant noodles per day.
Yet in a move that has fueled more fear, the island has imposed rationing of alcohol, whereby a person can only buy three bottles of 300 milliliters.
The fresh infections may in turn give Taiwan’s slow vaccine take-up a shot in the arm, if supplies can be guaranteed.
CNA reported on Monday that less than 200,000 of the island’s 24 million population had received at least one dose of vaccine. Taiwanese skepticism has slowed an islandwide roll-out of mostly AstraZeneca shots that are suspected of causing some health risks, including rare blood clots.
Previously, the island’s hope to procure mRNA jabs from German drugmaker BioNTech was pinpricked by the latter’s exclusive distribution deal covering the Greater China Region with Shanghai-based Fosun Pharma.
The island is now turning to the US to buy similar drugs from Moderna via its de facto embassy in Washington, with the first batch of unspecified shots due to arrive in Taiwan in June.