by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook

TAIWAN RECORDED another two cases of domestic transmission of COVID-19 earlier this week, after a doctor and his partner, a nurse who works at the same hospital in northern Taiwan, were both confirmed as infected with COVID-19. These are the second and third cases of domestic transmission of COVID-19 since April, following a case in which New Zealand pilot was found to have passed COVID-19 onto a flight attendant that he was reportedly having an affair with because of his violating quarantine.

More significantly, this is the first case in Taiwan of medical personnel becoming infected with COVID-19 due to close contact with patients during the course of the pandemic to date. The doctor works at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients, and is thought to have become infected after visiting a negative-pressure isolation ward. Although the nurse does not work treating COVID-19 infected patients, she is believed to have become infected due to contact at home with the doctor.

Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung (left). Photo credit: Presidential Office/CC

Before the incident, Taiwan has not had a case of any medical personnel becoming infected with COVID-19 due to treating infected patients. Likewise, Taiwan has not, in fact, seen any cases of domestic transmission of COVID-19 that occur because of insufficient isolation of quarantined individuals for at least eight months, something which is also surprising.

After the two cases were confirmed, parts of the hospital were evacuated, and the hospital closed its emergency room to outside visitors. 446 individuals that came in contact with the doctor and nurse have been tested for COVID-19, including all workers at the hospital, with 39 workers at the hospital now under quarantine.

Concerns about undetected COVID-19 transmission chains in Taiwan continues to cause the cancellation of planned mass gatherings. As a result, although the Taipei marathon took place on December 20th as planned, with thousands of participants, after the two cases, marathons in Kaohsiung and Kinmen were cancelled. Port visits by naval vessels to diplomatic allies of Taiwan have also been cancelled in order to prevent a repeat of an incident in which a cluster COVID-19 cases was found to be linked to a naval vessel that visited Palau in April 2020, though naval vessels will still carry out training missions.

At the same time, some social commentary has resulted from the fact that after the COVID-19 cases involving the doctor and nurse becoming infected, individuals on the Internet tried to find the personal information of both individuals, as well as which hospital they worked at.

This included comments denigrating and blaming both individuals for having become infected with the virus, this despite the fact that this occurred because of both being frontline medical workers, with the doctor being involved in the fight against COVID-19. Some individuals particularly singled out the nurse, as a woman, or suggested that it was shameful for Taiwanese and not foreigners to have become infected with COVID-19.

Tweet by Lai Pin-yu on the incident

Among those to call out such attitudes include former Sunflower Movement activist and current DPP legislator Lai Pin-yu. More broadly, one expects to see calls for the imposition of quarantine measures on medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients if there are more cases of transmission to medical workers.

Panic regarding virus infections has been disastrous for Taiwanese hospitals in the past. An infamous incident was when over 1,000 patients and staff at the Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital were forcibly quarantined in 2003 after a cluster of SARS cases was found at the hospital. Patients and staff were forced to stay at the hospital and not allowed to leave, with workers at the hospital putting banners on windows to call for help. A nurse attempted to jump out of the eighth floor of the building at one point, and staff members that fled were arrested. The hospital was stigmatized as the origin of the SARS outbreak, with 150 of 346 SARS cases taking place at the hospital, and the first doctor and nurse to die of SARS during the outbreak being workers at the hospital.

Whether in Taiwan or internationally, one has seen hostility to doctors, nurses, and other medical workers working to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in local communities, due to individuals fearing that they will contract COVID-19 from them. One can observe similarly with reactions to the doctor and nurse that were infected with COVID-19. Likewise, in both Taiwan and other contexts, COVID-19 has led to increased suspicion of or hostility toward foreigners, who are feared as outsiders that could potentially spread the disease.

Unfortunately, such views are likely to recur during the COVID-19 pandemic, reflective of some of the prejudices that exist in Taiwanese society. Such views existed before the COVID-19 pandemic and will persist afterward as well.

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