by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: 玄史生/WikiCommons/CC

CONTROVERSY CONTINUES regarding COVID-19 cases on three navy ships that returned from Palau. 29 sailors recently tested positive for COVID-19 on three ROC navy ships that returned as part of a “Friendship Flotilla” that visited Palau earlier this month.

744 sailors that were on board the three ships that made up the fleet, with most cases coming from the Panshih, a support ship. All sailors from the three vessels have now been placed under quarantine.

Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen. Photo credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

What has proved controversial was that sailors with confirmed COVID-19 cases had traveled to public locations after disembarking, opening up the possibility that they exposed others to the coronavirus. This included locations in nine cities and counties. Text message warnings were sent to individuals whose cell phone tracking data indicated that they were in fifteen minutes at the same place as any of the infected individuals, leading 200,000 text messages to be sent out. An online map showing locations visited by the sailors has also been released.

Taiwan has avoided community transmission to date, with three days last week in which there were no new reported COVID-19 cases. With the spread of COVID-19 seemingly under control in Taiwan, past weeks showed that most new COVID-19 cases in Taiwan are now imported, rather than as a result of cases of local transmission within Taiwan. What has raised fears is the possibility that this situation will change, due to travel by the 29 infected sailors without having gone through a quarantine period.

Official apologies have taken place from President Tsai Ing-wen in her capacity as commander-in-chief of the military, Minister of National Defense Yen De-fa, and others, and Admiral Liu Chih-pin, the commander of the ROC Navy. Yen has called on Tsai to punish him because of that he gave the orders for the three ships to set sail and Liu also requested punishment. Rear Admiral Chen Tao-hui and Vice Admiral Kao Chia-pin, the commander and vice commander of the “Friendship Flotilla” have also been reassigned positions as punishment, with reports that they ignored sailors reporting illness and set sail.

A controversy also broke out in Kaohsiung regarding that some of the sailors from the Friendship Flotilla appear to have initially refused to surrender to authorities for medical quarantine, leading to a standoff. Some have questioned the accuracy of such claims from the Kaohsiung city government, however, with current mayor Han Kuo-yu of the KMT and his administration having a reputation for political exaggeration.

A probe into the Friendship Flotilla is now ongoing. It is questioned where exactly sailors traveling as part of the flotilla could have caught COVID-19 if they were returning from Palau, which presently has reported no cases of COVID-19. It is also to be questioned whether sailors had COVID-19 before they set sail to Palau, or if they caught it during some stage in their voyage.

Palau’s capitol building. Photo credit: Lukas/Flickr/CC

The fleet was very likely involved in transporting medical supplies from Taiwan to Palau, as part of aid provided by Taiwan to one of its few diplomatic allies. Taiwan has provided testing kits, ventilators, and other medical supplies to Palau. But lawmakers have been vague about what the exact purpose of travel by the fleet was. Some have suggested that it is possible that ships in the flotilla made unreported stops, noting that the fleet passed near Singapore. This could have been part of a classified mission or could have been illicit behavior.

It is possible that the cluster of cases connected to the “Friendship Flotilla” will put a strain on relations with Palau. Again, Palau continues to officially report no cases, with a month having passed since the Friendship Flotilla visited. Some question the accuracy of such claims by the Palauan government, but one expects blowback from Palau if a Taiwanese fleet involved in bringing medical supplies to assist with efforts to fight COVID-19 ended up bringing the coronavirus to Palau.

If cases connected to the Panshih and other cases connected to the Friendship Flotilla have, in fact, spread in Taiwan, this will not become apparent until some time has passed. However, apart from fears that travel by sailors that were aboard the Friendship Flotilla could lead to the start of community transmission, this could be compounded by the upcoming Labor Day weekend, which will likely see increased travel.

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