by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook
THE TSAI ADMINISTRATION has moved to strengthen COVID-19 prevention measures in the past few days. First, the government is again requiring that masks be worn in public spaces including bars, nightclubs, medical facilities, government buildings, and places of worship, with fines of up to 15,000 NT for those that violate this requirement. Second, with the exception of emergencies, the government is now only allowing individuals that test negative for COVID-19 within three days of their departure to enter Taiwan, even if they are Taiwanese citizens or Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) holders. The measures will take effect on December 1st.
Evidently, the Tsai administration is erring on the side of caution regarding COVID-19. The last case of domestic transmission of COVID-19 in Taiwan was on April 12th, as a result of which Taiwan reached 200 days since its last case of domestic transmission in October.
The Tsai administration’s actions are in response to an anticipated wave of returnees for the Lunar New Year Holiday, as well as because of an uptick in imported COVID-19 cases over the past month that has brought Taiwan’s total number of COVID-19 cases to 609, with still only seven deaths to date due to the coronavirus. That is, Taiwan reached 600 cases last Saturday, November 14th, having reached 500 cases on September 16th. Nevertheless, Taiwan only reached 400 cases in April. The increase in imported cases from September to the present is noticeable.
The increase in cases has been due to both Taiwanese returning to Taiwan, as well as foreigners traveling to Taiwan. Yet with a wave of returnees expected during the winter and Lunar New Year, the Tsai administration seems to be increasingly wary of the possibility of domestic transmission from Taiwanese citizens, seeing as previous measures did not require Taiwanese to test negative for COVID-19 before returning to Taiwan—policy criticized by Taiwan’s foreign residents as discriminatory in nature, eventually leading ARC holders to also be exempted from testing. Individuals unable to pay for a test three days before departure will be allowed to pay for a test on arrival.
The Tsai administration may be cautious that COVID-19 will see an uptick during the winter, as some experts warned could be the case last year. With Taiwan hailed for its successes fighting COVID-19 internationally, the Tsai administration, too, likely has its eye on maintaining this international image—measures requiring that individuals test negative for COVID-19 before returning to Taiwan are probably aimed at continuing Taiwan’s streak of not having domestic COVID-19 transmission cases.
Indeed, the lack of cases of domestic transmission from individuals in quarantine has to date been unremarked upon as a factor in Taiwan’s successes fighting off COVID-19. Past events have led to wariness that there may have been domestic transmission chains that went unreported on, such as when 24 sailors aboard a naval vessel that traveled to Palau as part of a diplomatic visit, the Panshih, tested positive for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, evidence has not suggested to date the need for mass testing, with the government warning that mass testing could overwhelm the medical system. The central government warned that the influx of false positives from mass testing would overwhelm the medical system, seeing as this would be 12,492 false positives, and they would all need to be quarantined.
In August, the Changhua local government, which is controlled by the KMT, took a stance against the central government in calling for mass testing. However, test results of an antibody study of Changhua residents that proponents of mass testing likely hoped would show undetected COVID-19 transmission chains showed that the presence of COVID-19 was still low in Taiwan, with only four individuals testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies out of a sample of 4,891 Changhua residents.
Temperature checks for public establishments such as bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and the MRT have remained constant through the COVID-19 pandemic, as have name registration systems for individuals that visit such establishments, in order to warn those who may have come in contact with COVID-19 infected individuals in such an event. Even if not all establishments are likely to fully enforce renewed COVID-19 pandemic measures, the call for a redoubling of such measures serves as a warning that COVID-19 is still a danger to Taiwanese society and that the threat is not past.
The Central Disease Commission has stated that it has no plans to shorten the quarantine period for returnees to Taiwan. Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung has urged Taiwanese returning for the Lunar New Year to do so early.
It remains to be seen as to how this will affect plans for a potential “travel bubble” with shortened quarantine periods to be created between Taiwan and Singapore, with previous plans for a “travel bubble” between Taiwan and Palau having been postponed. The idea of a travel bubble with Taiwan is likely to be a sensitive issue in Palau because the Panshih cluster was found after the navy vessel’s visit to Palau.
As COVID-19 cases continue to soar worldwide, with over 50 million cases globally to date, and new records for daily deaths from COVID-19 continuing to be set globally, it remains to be seen whether such measures will prove sufficient to cope with combating the spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan. One expects new measures to adapt to a changing situation to be rolled out by the Tsai administration. That being said, one also expects to see the KMT to continue to seek points with which to attack the Tsai administration on regarding its COVID-19 prevention measures, such as claiming that COVID-19 prevention measures are too extreme and have been deleterious to Taiwan’s economy, or that trying to assert the need for mass testing.