by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Brian Hioe
TAIWAN EXPERIENCED a sudden jump in COVID-19 coronavirus cases in the last three days, leading to expansions of government measures and renewed calls for individuals to stay at home to avoid spreading the coronavirus and “flatten the curve” of disease spread.
Taiwan now has 77 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announcing ten new cases today in what was Taiwan’s largest jump in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a single day. The day prior, the CECC announced eight new cases and the day before that six new cases. This means that the overall number of cases in Taiwan has increased by around 45% in the last three days.
Upticks in COVID-19 cases have provoked fears that, while the spread of the coronavirus had previously been kept in check in Taiwan, Taiwan will now experience a surge in the number of imported cases. Confirmed COVID-19 cases were all imported, rather than being the result of transmission within Taiwan.
Countries in which cases were imported from include the Czech Republic, Dubai, Egypt, Italy, Germany, Greece, Japan, the Philippines, Spain, Thailand, and Turkey. Taiwan has to date only had one death that was caused by COVID-19 and 22 individuals infected with COVID-19 have now recovered. One notes that China, the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, is now reporting more cases that were imported than from domestic spread. If this is to be believed, this suggests that Asian countries successful in fighting back the spread of COVID-19 now face threats from the spread of the coronavirus outside of Asia. The Taiwanese government is now announcing re-testing for individuals who previously returned from Europe, in order to prevent the further spread of possibly unreported cases.
Several of the individuals that contracted COVID-19 were part of the same tour group that visited Egypt and Turkey, or were studying at the same school in Spain. Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung has pointed out that, seeing as Turkey has only reported five COVID-19 cases but five Taiwanese contracted COVID-19 in Turkey, this suggests that some countries are severely underreporting the number of COVID-19 cases within their borders.
In response to the sudden jump in COVID-19 cases, the CECC increased the travel notice for 42 countries to level 3 yesterday, adding 20 Asian countries and three American states today. These include countries in Africa, Central Asia, East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Schengen Zone in western Europe. The CECC has warned Taiwanese against unnecessary travel. The CECC previously increased the travel notice for a number of European and Middle Eastern countries last week to level 2.
Level 3 requires mandatory home quarantines, while level 2 requires enhanced precautions and self-health management for fourteen days once home. Fines between 100,000 NT and one million NT will be imposed on individuals that violate home quarantines, their names could be publicized, and they will also forfeit their right to the 1,000 NT stipend for individuals under quarantine. Fines of 150,000 NT will also be imposed on people that provide false information to authorities on health declarations. The CECC will announce regulations on what it defines as non-essential travel later this week. Symptomatic foreign travelers who arrive from countries that do not have level 3 travel notices will be required to pay the cost of their quarantine and treatment.
Protective garments are crucial for keeping medical workers safe from #COVID19. Like face masks, we’ve upped production of these garments by collaborating with the private sector to ensure that our doctors, nurses, & emergency responders are fully protected. pic.twitter.com/WcgHgYZTlP
— 蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen (@iingwen) March 17, 2020
Tweet by President Tsai Ing-wen on efforts to increase the production of protective medical garments
Indeed, the central government announced a ban on teachers and students at and below the high school level traveling abroad. Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of National Defense personnel have also been prohibited from overseas travel. This follows up on a previous ban announced for medical personnel leaving Taiwan. This has led to concerns regarding the government’s ability to restrict individual citizen’s freedom of movement, however, as raised by individuals such as NPP chair and legislator Handy Chiu. The government’s definition of “non-essential travel” and whether there is to be legal restrictions imposed on non-essential travel, will likely also prove controversial.
In the meantime, the Taiwanese government also continues to roll out measures intended to combat the spread of COVID-19. Apart from increasing production lines for manufacturing medical masks, making alcohol disinfectant produced by the state-run Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp available at more locations, and increasing the production of protective medical garments, the CECC also announced that businesses and establishments can require individuals to wear masks inside their premises and that individuals with a recent history of travel from countries with a level 2 or 3 travel notice would be restricted from giving blood.
The government may expand the fleet of vehicles used for transporting individuals at risk for COVID-19 to and from their homes and increasing text-message checks on individuals under home quarantine. With incidents of assault on medical personnel involved in efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19, the government has warned of jail time for individuals that carry out such assaults, warning that this is punishable by up to 3 years of jail or a fine of 300,000 NT.
Government subsidies for industries affected by COVID-19 continue, with the government working on a loan program to subsidize airlines heavily affected by the drop in air traffic as a result of the spread of the coronavirus. Airlines were previously budgeted 4.863 billion NT in subsidies by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications. Similarly, the government plans to distribute coupons worth 800 NT to ROC citizens if they stay at hotels, to be used at shopping districts, night markets, or to watch movies. The government is considering rolling out more coupons in order to stimulate the tourism industry, which has taken a hit as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Measures are also being rolled out for workers that have been laid off or who have been asked to take unpaid leave.
Civil society groups continue to call for an amnesty for undocumented migrant workers in Taiwan, with a petition launched to call for this. It is thought that Taiwan’s 50,000 undocumented migrant workers may fear coming forward for health check-ups due to the possibility of deportation, hence calls for their amnesty in light off that this could be a potential health risk.
In the wake of controversy regarding the repatriation of Taiwanese citizens in Wuhan, Taiwanese citizens in Italy have issued a statement that they are not calling for any flight to be booked by the government for their repatriation.
Controversy continues regarding the Chinese government’s attempts to claim Taiwan as part of its territory in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Backlash has ensued against the Chinese government for attempts to claim that Chinese scientists were involved in efforts by Academia Sinica scientists to develop a test for COVID-19 that could reduce the amount of time needed to detect the disease to fifteen minutes. Likewise, controversy ensued after a virus tracker released by Johns Hopkins University labelled Taiwan as “Taipei and environs.” After a protest by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Johns Hopkins later returned Taiwan to the list of countries on the tracker. The Chinese government has also continued with fly-bys aimed at militarily intimidating Taiwan. While Chinese fighter planes flying near Taiwanese airspace has occurred throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, yesterday was the first time that fighter planes have ever made a nighttime flyby.
Generally speaking, the spread of COVID-19 seems to be worsening internationally. Having endured the pandemic so far, it remains to be seen how Taiwan will weather this. If Taiwan inadvertently benefited in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its borders due to its longstanding political skepticism toward China and international organizations, it is to be seen how Taiwan will be affected the spread of COVID-19 from outside of Asia.