Politics

Taiwan faces tough choices as Covid-19 cases hit record levels


TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) – Last Tuesday (April 12), Taiwan’s health minister said the island could see 1,000 local Covid-19 cases a day by the end of the month. It hit that level just three days later, and must now choose between living with the virus like New Zealand or sticking with elimination strategies like in Hong Kong.

Local cases hit a record of 1,390 on Monday and have averaged 1,176 over the past five days. The surge rattled many of the island’s 23 million people, which has seen just 854 Covid-19 deaths from local infection over the entire pandemic.

“The scale of the pandemic right now is very large,” Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a briefing on Friday, adding Taiwan may one day see tens of thousands – or even millions – of cases. “The point is not about the case counts, but about whether we can prevent a disastrous impact.”

A strategy of border controls, mask mandates and contact tracing stamped out multiple outbreaks, allowing chip factories to drive exports and growth, pushing the jobless rate to a 21-year low.

Many residents embraced the safety of the island’s bubble, but businesses want borders to open up. Some 91 per cent of American Chamber of Commerce members say it’s “very important” to gradually reopen borders and reduce travel curbs.

“Open borders are still important if Taiwan wants to attract foreign investors, who can contribute more to the economy than tourists,” said Mr Winston Chiao, an economist at Taishin Securities. “To expand or make new investments in Taiwan, they need to be able to come here personally.”

Minister Chen has previously suggested isolation will be required for even triple-vaccinated travellers until 2023, though that was before cases hit four digits.

Hard decisions

Omicron makes it near-impossible to contain large outbreaks. New Zealand, a Covid Zero hero, ditched the policy after a lockdown failed to halt cases.

But its high vaccination rate limited deaths to less than 600, and it’s now benefiting from opening its border and winding back curbs.

In contrast, China is sticking with Covid Zero and lockdowns, despite public anger and damage to the economy.

Hong Kong kept border curbs even as tens of thousands of daily cases overwhelmed its testing, tracing and isolation strategy.

Taiwan has cut its mandatory quarantine to ten days and has signalled that contract-tracing may no longer be viable in cities with large numbers of cases.

Lending weight to a gradual shift to living with Covid-19 is the fact that 99 per cent of cases in Taiwan this year have been mild or asymptomatic, according to Taiwan Centres for Disease Control. President Tsai Ing-wen says authorities will balance the needs of the economy with the risk to public health.



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