With an eye on China’s zero-Covid chaos, Taiwan seizes opportunity to open up

The tables of his restaurant in the Taiwanese capital are packed with customers, waiters bustle over plates of squid soup and rice noodles, and conversation and laughter fill the air.

Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like yours to stay open despite a wave of Covid infections, reaching more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone, sweeping across the island.

Things could have been so different. Until recently, the island had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s business was closed for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, dealing a blow to his employees — and his bottom line. ending, which left him “heartbroken”.

“We were lucky to have survived and got through that,” he said.

But since then, the Taiwanese government has had a profound rethink. What was until recently one of the world’s last zero-Covid holdouts has now changed its mindset to living with the virus, fueled by the realization that even the strictest quarantine and contact-tracing regimens are no match for the variant. Highly transmissible Omicron, as demonstrated by the chaos unfolding across the Taiwan Strait in China

For Chen, it’s a welcome change that has ensured his business can continue relatively unaffected by the outbreak. While he remains concerned about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies, like Singapore, that have managed to navigate similar mindset shifts.

“I think we have to overcome our fears and walk carefully step by step,” he said.

Oscar Chen, owner of Liang Xi Hao restaurant in downtown Taipei.

A tale of two cities

Taiwan’s reopening is in stark contrast to Shanghai. There, in a desperate effort to hold on to its covid-zero ideals, China is resorting to increasingly strict measures in a bid to curb an Omicron outbreak that has infected hundreds of thousands of people.

Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, where there is a significant Taiwanese community, have been closed for weeks.

The chaotic scenes of angry clashes between Shanghai residents and police officers trying to force people into quarantine have received extensive coverage in the Taiwanese media, helping to sway public opinion on the island. offering a reminder of the sacrifices zero covid policies require.

It’s a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.

“It is very hard for him. We don’t discuss it on the political front, but my brother has been in quarantine for 45 days without being able to leave his house. At least he can still order takeout, in some neighborhoods people can’t and have to wait for the government to send supplies.”

The reopening of Taiwan further isolates China as perhaps the last major economy in the world still following a zero covid policy. Even Hong Kong, which had long clung to the model in an effort to reopen its borders with mainland China, has been loosening its restrictions after a recent Omicron-driven wave sent its per capita death rate soaring by a point to the highest in Asia. .
That sense of growing isolation is likely to only add to the backlash against politics in Shanghai and other shuttered Chinese cities, where frustration is growing over what seems like a never-ending fight. Despite politics holding back the country’s economy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping rejected any suggestion of easing, vowing to redouble efforts “firmly.”
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in China for a few years, said it was natural for Taiwan to open up as vaccination rates increased.

Shanghai Lessons

Taiwan’s move to reopen is fueled in part by a desire to avoid exactly the kind of scenes playing out in Shanghai, which Taiwan’s Prime Minister Su Tseng-chang described to reporters last week as “cruel” and not as a role model for Taiwan.

It also reflects an acknowledgment that the dawn of the Omicron variant left Covid-zero economies with a choice: double down as China on ever-tightening measures or take the opportunity high vaccination rates provide to open up.

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus on ensuring normal lives for its residents as much as possible, rather than aiming for zero infections.

Ironically, it is the freedom the island enjoyed during its long Covid-free period that made that election inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president from 2016 to 2020.

“In the last two years, people enjoyed a very free life here: they lived normally and went to work normally. So we don’t like city lockdowns or mass testing, and we don’t think it’s helpful to control the spread. of the virus,” Chen said.

Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, the milder variant had presented an opportunity as it has “very high infectivity, but fairly low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. To date, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, are fully vaccinated with two injections, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford.

“(The Taiwanese) saw the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t really see the need to use city lockdowns to contain the Omicron variant. It’s very difficult, mission impossible.”

Chen said that Taiwan should now focus on increasing the coverage of Covid-19 boosters, as well as increasing the distribution of antiviral drugs and rapid diagnostic kits to the community.

The government’s decision has been popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they felt Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict lockdown measures imposed on mainland China.

Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in mainland China for a few years, felt that eradicating the virus was not feasible.

“If we still had severe restrictions like in mainland China even after vaccination, it would be very painful and there would be no point in getting the vaccinations,” he said.

Taiwan's former vice president and epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen says zero-Covid is a

A beacon of hope?

But if Taiwan’s approach is driven in part by a desire to avoid a Shanghai-like fate, there are also optimists who wonder if it could have an effect in the opposite direction, giving hope to lockdown Chinese cities that there really is a way. out of the corner of zero-Covid.

Chen Chien-jen, who as vice president led Taiwan’s initial response to Covid-19, said many Taiwanese were initially skeptical about abandoning the elimination strategy because it had been successful for so long in maintaining a low rate of community transmission.

Taiwan had previously experienced only one major outbreak of Covid-19, in May last year. That time he banned in-person dining, closed entertainment venues and suspended schools to control the spread. It then managed to keep the number of cases at or near zero until March 15 of this year.

But as the latest outbreak grew, Taiwanese realized that with a less severe variant and high levels of vaccination, the island could afford to live with it.

The rewards are in sight. The quarantine for arrivals from abroad was reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory QR code scanning before entering restaurants and shops has been removed. Close contacts of confirmed patients must now quarantine for just three days.

There is also another benefit: no longer fighting a useless battle. As Chen said: “We can see that the zero covid policy can never reach the goal of totally eliminating the virus in any country.”

Taiwanese mother Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy, believes that the government should clarify the rules on school suspension before leaving covid zero behind.

skepticism remains

Still, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully prepared to move forward.

Since early May, as the number of cases rose, long lines formed outside pharmacies in Taipei every day as residents rushed to buy rapid test kits. Many leave empty-handed despite queuing for hours.

The Health Ministry has said that those without Covid-19 symptoms must first test positive in a rapid test if they want to be eligible for a more accurate PCR test, which has only increased demand.

The difficulty of buying the test kits has led some residents to complain about the lack of preparation by the authorities.

“It would have been better for the residents (to be prepared) before moving on to live with the virus,” said a mother surnamed Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old son. “Many families still do not have adequate access to rapid test kits.”

Other parents fear that their children, who are not yet eligible for vaccination in Taiwan, are vulnerable.

“I feel that the government has not considered children in their attempt to live with the virus,” said another mother surnamed Chang, whose two children are in kindergarten. “I am worried… I have avoided taking my children to the inner courtyards and only take them to the parks when there are fewer people.”

“Right now, there are rule changes every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be really confusing, and it’s best to have a plan.”

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