by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

PREMIER SU TSENG-CHANG and Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung announced a shift to level three alert status for Taipei and New Taipei this morning at a 10:45 AM press conference. This took place after an explosion of 180 domestic cases overnight, with five imported cases. The rest of Taiwan remains on level two, though Taoyuan later announced that it was voluntarily shifting to near-level three conditions. Level three status will last for two weeks and go until May 28th. 

This is 89 cases in Taipei, 75 New Taipei, six in Changhua, and four cases in Yilan and Taoyuan each, one case in both Taichung and Keelung each, and a newly confirmed case in Tainan. Individuals range in age between under five and 80 years old, having shown symptoms between April 23rd and May 14th. The new cases are thought to be linked to previous cases in Novotel Taoyuan International Hotel, the Luodong Night Market, and tea houses in Wanhua, based on genetic testing of strains in circulation, with the new cases all being the UK variant. The central government will work with local governments to release information about the movement of the new cases. 

Information on the current measures implemented released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook

Outdoor testing sites will be set up, with this having already begun in Taoyuan, and social distancing and mask-wearing implemented at testing sites, although there have been some reports of individuals turned away from testing sites in Wanhua. At his 2 PM press briefing, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung called on individuals to avoid travel between level two and level three areas. Concerns have been raised regarding individuals traveling despite infection, as in the case of an individual who became sick in Wanhua, but traveled to Tainan to be treated. If other areas shift to level three, this would probably be Yilan, Taoyuan, and Keelung, which have strong transportation links to Taipei and New Taipei.

43 of the new cases have been traced to the Wanhua cluster, due to cases among Wanhua tea houses and stall owners. Testing at Wanhua resulted in positive COVID-19 cases of 3% to 10% of those tested, up from .5%. The majority of the cases, however, are of unknown origin. Wanhua in Taipei and New Taipei are believed to particularly be at risk. Taiwan’s current testing capacity is around 16,000 per day.

Level three is just short of a lockdown. A shift to level four, which does entail a full lockdown, will take place if there are over 100 cases of COVID-19 consecutively every day for fourteen days.

Indoor gatherings, defined as consisting of social gatherings or family gatherings, of five and outdoor gatherings of more than ten are forbidden. This does not affect households that live together. Religious and entertainment activities have been canceled. Individuals are required to wear masks outside. Fines for not wearing masks are between 3,000 and 15,000 NT. Violating restrictions on indoor gatherings are 60,000 NT to 300,000 NT. The government will not be conducting inspections for violations on a household-to-household basis.

Businesses, schools, and restaurants are not shut down under level three. Businesses, schools, restaurants, and other places of employment have been called on to implement social distancing measures, shut down if this is not possible, and to shift to remote work or teaching if possible. Individuals have been called on to get take-out from restaurants if possible; Taiwan disproportionately eats out, because it is cheaper to do so, and many homes do not have kitchens. Restaurants are required to have real-name registration for customers.

At the same time, concerns have been raised regarding the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through poorly ventilated restaurants. Similarly, concerns have been raised about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading due to high school testing. High school testing that took place today involving 202,547 students, found 55 students have fevers. High school testing is still planned to go ahead as scheduled this weekend, despite that it is possible schools will move to online teaching or classes will be canceled in the near future. 

Infographic released by the Ministry of Health and Welfare on the new cases. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare

Many businesses, schools, and restaurants are likely to close nonetheless. The Taiwanese government sometimes adopts the strategy of indirectly pressuring businesses, schools, restaurants, or other establishments to close on their own, but without directly ordering them to shut down. With disruptions in the stock market due to the possibility of a lockdown or near-lockdown conditions, the Tsai administration is likely trying to reassure of minimal effect to Taiwan’s economy and minimized disruption to everyday life. Public buildings such as museums, zoos, and government-run events have been canceled. Local governments have been called on to expand facilities for quarantine and Taipei city intends to use designated hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients.

Panic buying has taken place at supermarkets, despite that this has the potential to further spread COVID-19, and despite that supermarkets will not close. Concerns have taken place regarding the possibility of COVID-19 spreading at not only supermarkets, but traditional markets.

Some confusion may result due to lack of coordination with local governments. Around 6 PM yesterday, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je suddenly announced that bars, nightclubs, dance halls, coffee shops, and other establishments involving host/hostess services would be shut down after midnight. It was unclear whether this announcement was in coordination with the central government and the announcement led to confusion among bars and coffee shops that do not involve host/hostess services or elements of sex work whether they, too, would also be forced to shut down. Though the Taipei mayor’s office said that bars and coffee shops not involving host/hostess services would not be ordered to shut down, this did not prevent many from deciding to close on their own.

Following Ko’s announcement, shutdowns also took place in Taoyuan, Keelung, New Taipei, and other places with transportation links to Taipei. What proved unusual was that the announcement did not come from the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which coordinates Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, and the central government. Although Ko may have been reacting to internal news of increased cases, there was little inkling of the explosion of cases before this morning, and the central government had a window of opportunity to declare a lockdown yesterday night.

This perhaps points to the possibility of lacking coordination between central and local governments, with pan-Blue mayors such as Ko potentially seeking to make the Tsai administration appear slow to react to the spread of COVID-19 by taking proactive action. It is possible that this will complicate the COVID-19 response going forward. As the two most affected areas are Taipei and New Taipei, it is more probably Ko that would seek to break with the Tsai administration—probably due to realizing the poor electoral outlook for the KMT at present, New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi of the KMT is unusually close to the Tsai administration at present, and has stressed cooperation with CECC measures.

Infographic released by the Ministry of Economic Affairs on Taiwan’s current stock of medical supplies. Photo credit: Ministry of Economic Affairs

The increase in cases in the past days has been exponential. Three domestic cases were detected on Monday, with seven on Tuesday, sixteen cases on Wednesday, thirteen cases on Thursday, 29 cases yesterday, and 180 cases today. 174 cases are currently hospitalized, with 12 serious cases. 

With the sudden explosion in cases, one expects the KMT and pan-Blue actors to call for political bloodletting. Taiwan has not had to undergo a lockdown to date and the effects of COVID-19 have been limited. As a result, 180 cases will be seen as COVID-19 having gone out of control, with exaggerated comparisons to other contexts—indeed, while Wanhua currently has less than 100 cases, one has seen claims in Taiwanese media that the cases in Wanhua are out of control on par with the situation in India.

This will further complicate the COVID-19 response, with the DPP blamed for the situation having gone out of control, when it is improbable that Taiwan could have stayed free from the effects of COVID-19 forever—Taiwan’s successes in fighting off COVID-19 can be seen in that it is one of the world’s last places to avoid a lockdown. 180 cases will be framed as an unmanageably high number of cases. Nevertheless, the subsequent question will be whether cases continue to exponentially increase, or whether the number of cases level off and then decline.

One can expect a rush for vaccinations to take place, following the explosion of new cases. More supply of the AstraZeneca will arrive next month, while Moderna vaccines that were set to arrive this month have been delayed. The Tsai administration has stated that domestically produced vaccines will be available at the end of July, once phase two testing is complete, though questions have been raised regarding whether other countries will recognize Taiwan-produced vaccines. According to Minister Chen today, it is expected that all 199,200 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine will be used up before they expire, with less than 100,000 doses remaining, while those who already have vaccinations scheduled will proceed on schedule. Due to the rise in demand, self-paid vaccines have been stopped.

In the meantime, Taiwan currently has a supply of 800 million medical masks, with a daily production capacity of between 18.3 million masks and 40 million masks. The Tsai administration has stressed that supplies of alcohol sanitizer, with the capacity to produce 40,000 bottles per day and 570,000 bottles in stock, are sufficient, and that Taiwan has 2.5 million PPE and over 13 million isolation gowns.

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