by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook

COVID-19 PREVENTION measures in Taiwan have been strengthened, following the first reported case of domestic COVID-19 transmission since April and the first imported case of a new strain of COVID-19 originally detected in the UK that many experts believe may be more infectious than the original strain.

As a result, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced today that borders would be closed to non-resident foreigners for one month starting on January 1st. Starting on January 15th, individuals will also need to provide proof of quarantine arrangements before being allowed to travel to Taiwan, in addition to a negative COVID-19 quarantine result. To this extent, flight transfers will no longer be allowed to take place in Taiwan from January 1st onward. 

Announcement by the CECC of the new travel restrictions. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook

A key factor regarding why the COVID-19 pandemic was kept under control in Taiwan was swift action that stopped COVID-19 at the border and the CECC is likely hoping to prevent the newer strain of COVID-19 from entering Taiwan in this way. Concern regarding this new strain of COVID-19 led the Chunghwa Post to suspend mail service from the UK starting this week.

The April case of domestic transmission took place after a New Zealand pilot for EVA Air violated quarantine measures to travel to crowded public places, infecting a Taiwanese woman that he had close contact with. Contact tracing and testing, however, has to date returned negative results for all of the individuals that he or the woman came into contact with. Following public backlash, the man was fired from his position as a pilot for EVA Air. Other pilots and flight attendants that broke quarantine have received disciplinary measures.

Yet despite the negative test results, many public events have been canceled or rescheduled because of concerns regarding the possible outbreak of COVID-19 after the incident. Popular band May Day has rescheduled concerts originally planned in December to January, while New Taipei canceled outdoor activities held at Christmasland, an outdoor shopping and entertainment area set up for the holidays. Taipei and other cities intend to impose limits on the number of people allowed to attend new year’s fireworks, who will also be required to register their names. It will be required that individuals keep their cell phones on at new years’ events in order to receive text messages on health safety information, that they wear medical masks, and they will be turned away if they have symptoms of COVID-19, such as a fever or coughing. Furthermore, event organizers will be required to provide hand sanitizer and frequently disinfect restrooms.

After the incident with the EVA Air pilot, there have been calls to increase the quarantine period for pilots and flight attendants. Pilots are currently allowed to undergo a reduced three day quarantine period, while flight attendants are allowed to undergo a seven-day quarantine period, though they are required to avoid crowded areas and undergo self-health management after their quarantine periods end. This was something that the EVA Air pilot did not do, seeing as he refused to wear a mask, and did not report symptoms of COVID-19. Other occupational groups with shortened quarantine periods are likely to come under similar scrutiny.

At the same time, a note of caution should be sounded regarding the effects of COVID-19 measures on vulnerable groups. One notes that airline industry workers, for example, have demonstrated in past years against exploitative working conditions involving long hours that are not properly documented and disproportionate disciplinary actions taken by management against airline workers that stand up against poor labor conditions. One expects airline managements to act similarly when it comes to enforcing COVID-19 quarantine measures for airline workers, or that airlines may use COVID-19 as a pretext for cost-cutting measures aimed at extracting more labor from airline workers—who are already at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 than other groups.

To this extent, one notes that with many imported COVID-19 cases coming from migrant workers, it is possible that punishments for breaking COVID-19 regulations will disproportionately target migrant workers. Criticisms were previously leveled against a 100,000 NT fine imposed on a Filipino migrant worker who broke quarantine for a total of eight seconds in Kaohsiung, in spite of the fact that he did not encounter anyone during this period, while four DJ that traveled to Taiwan to perform at the Ultra Taiwan electronic music festival only received 10,000 NT fines each. This led to accusations of racism, seeing as the four Ultra Taiwan DJs were white, as compared to migrant workers from Southeast Asian countries. It has been pointed out that 100,000 NT is many months of pay for a migrant worker.

Some have suggested similarly regarding a case of a Filipina national who became the first in Kaohsiung to be fined for violating her self-health management period by going to eat hot pot with nine friends before receiving the result of her COVID-19 test. The COVID-19 test later came back with a positive result, though the woman had completed her quarantine period.

Current statistics on COVID-19 cases in Taiwan. Taiwan has to date had 797 confirmed cases, only 56 of which are classified as cases of domestic transmission. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare

Consequently, the woman was fined 10,000 NT. Some have suggested racial bias as to that the woman was fined, whereas previous incidents did not result in a fine. This fine on the basis of violating her self-health management period is thought to be the first time that such a fine was imposed in not only Kaohsiung, but Taiwan as a whole. The application of COVID-19 prevention measures, then, will be an issue to keep an eye on going forward.

More broadly speaking, with new measures to fight COVID-19 rolled out by the CECC, it is a question as to whether the CECC changes its current regulations regarding COVID-19 quarantine periods. As a result of the new, possibly more virulent strain of COVID-19, this has led Hong Kong to order arrivals to quarantine for twenty-one days, an increase from fourteen days. It is possible that other governments, such as the Taiwanese government, will follow suit with adjusting mandatory quarantine periods. This remains to be seen.

In the meantime, the Taiwanese government has taken steps to secure COVID-19 vaccines for the Taiwanese population. The Taiwanese government is currently in talks to obtain 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, with it expected that the Taiwanese government will purchase 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate 15 million individuals, covering 65% of Taiwan’s population. Vaccines are expected to be delivered by March 2021.

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