Taiwan Is Abandoning Its Zero-COVID Strategy

Taipei is easing COVID-19 curbs even as its daily cases are rising, in a strategy radically different from Beijing’s zero-tolerance policy that has shut down many Chinese cities and sent the economy into a tailspin.

On May 5, Taiwan recorded more than 30,000 new COVID-19 infections—crossing that daily threshold for the first time since the pandemic began. The current wave of infections looks to get worse for the island of 23 million, which has so far registered nearly 232,400 cases—some 215,000 since January—and 886 fatalities.

Omicron variant is expected to increase daily caseloads. Chen Shihchung, Taiwan’s Health Minister, said that Taiwan is on pace to register up to 100,000 new infections each day. That is much higher than the original projection of 45,000.

In the face of the spike in cases, however, the government signaled that it was changing its pandemic strategy. It is now moving away from draconian travel restrictions and mask-wearing mandates to suppress the virus, as well as fastidious contact tracking. A month into the launch of a “new Taiwanese model” of COVID-19 containment, asymptomatic and mild cases are being isolated at home, save for infected children. The quarantine period for close friends is now three days rather than the previous 10. Quantitative quarantine will now be reduced from 10 days to seven.

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Premier Su Tseng-chang said this new approach isn’t exactly living with COVID-19, as the virus “would not be allowed to spread unchecked.” But prevention of the virus from spreading is to be balanced with reopening the economy and allowing people to live normally, he emphasized. Su said to reporters in May that no strict restrictions would apply. Health officials are to focus on minimizing severe cases and maintaining “effective control” of mild or asymptomatic ones.

The Taiwanese Strait has also seen severe restrictions to normal living due to the zero COVID policy. For weeks, entire towns in China’s mainland were locked down. The operations of factories and ports have been suspended. Access to public transport and facilities is controlled by health apps for mobile phones. Although Hong Kong is now free from travel restrictions, the harsh travel restrictions of the last two years have caused Hong Kong’s proud aviation hub to become a shadow version of itself.

Due to the transmissible nature Omicron variant, experts say Taiwan needs its own solution. “Any containment protocol has to be dynamically revised according to the situation of the epidemic or other characteristics of this virus,” says Chen Chien-jen, who was Taiwan’s vice-president from 2016 to 2020 and is an epidemiologist by training.

What is Taiwan doing to get away from zero COVID?

In the past, COVID-19 has been successfully contained in Taiwan. In January 2020, the island ban all flights across the Strait. This was immediately following the discovery of the virus in Wuhan in central China. Taiwan was able to avoid lockdown by swiftly tracking close friends, mass testing and having a centralized mask distribution system. Taiwan did not have to be locked down until a soft curb was put in place last year in order control the Alpha variant.

Last summer, Taiwan’s COVID-19 response was again put to the test in the face of hundreds of new infections. It was difficult for Taiwan to obtain COVID-19 vaccinations, and only 3% were being vaccinated. All new arrivals had to be quarantined for 14 days. Restaurants, shops, and all other businesses were subjected to strict traceability policies. Taiwan’s COVID-19 cases ballooned to around 11,000 by June 2021 and more than 800 people died during the wave.

Taiwan started to distribute its own vaccines at the same time. TIME spoke to Chen that Taiwan needed a high level of vaccination and rapid antiviral testing before it could abandon its zero-COVID policy. The island has now vaccinated 79% of its population, secured some 40 million test kits, and will have obtained 700,000 courses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 drug, Paxlovid, by June. Nearly 180,000 of the courses have been sent to pharmacies and hospitals.

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There has been some vaccine resistance among Taiwan’s elderly. “There will still be groups who feel that since they had almost no chance of getting the virus when Taiwan had no cases, [they don’t] need to get the vaccine now”, says Wayne Soon, a history professor at Vassar College in New York, who studies medical ideas and practices in East Asia. COVID-19 has reached 72.5% among adults over 75, and nearly 60% have received a booster.

Hong Kong was lagging behind in this regard. In January alone, around 25% of people over 80 were not vaccinated, right before an epidemic. Many cases were severe, which overwhelmed the healthcare system. A total of 9,300 COVID victims have been killed in the territory. 98% of these deaths were caused by the Omicron virus-driven latest outbreak. Over 95% were 60-plus.

Hong Kong is also reversing its prior zero COVID protocols. There are now restrictions on travel and businesses. Huang Yanzhong, a global health policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations tells TIME that Hong Kong can likewise expect numbers to surge as regulations are loosened, but cases should be asymptomatic or mild—as are 99% of the cases in Taiwan’s current wave of infection.

“You cannot expect to move away from zero-COVID unless they experience this stage, this feature, this spike in cases, including the severe cases and also the mortality rate,” Huang says. “But that can be managed. It is possible to make the transition. [at] a manageable level.”

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