by Brian Hioe
THE PAST YEAR has been one in which Taiwan saw international accolades for its handling of COVID-19, with Taiwan avoiding the lengthy lockdowns that the rest of the world has seen and remaining mostly COVID-free in 2020.
For many Taiwanese, then, this was a moment of pride—in which Taiwan’s accomplishments could be highlighted in the international world. Taiwan has long been excluded from the international community and it is marginal, because it is consistently overshadowed by its larger neighbor across the Taiwan Straits—China. During this time, the Tsai administration sought to leverage increased global awareness of Taiwan in order to boost soft power, as well as to expand Taiwan’s international space.
Speech given by Tsai on the current COVID-19 outlook this afternoon
But Taiwan’s moment in the sun abruptly came to an end with the outbreak that broke out earlier this month. Now, one routinely sees pan-Blue politicians lambasting Taiwan as lagging behind all international standards, criticizing Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 as among the world’s worst. Many of the claims circulated by pan-Blue politicians verge on disinformation.
Pan-blue politicians would be playing on Taiwan’s historic lack of self-confidence then, overshadowed as it is by larger powers such as the US and China and caught between their geopolitical machinations. That is, pan-Blue politicians are now seeking to invert last year’s narrative, so as to make it appear as though Taiwan was always lagging behind, if not for the fraudulent attempts of the Tsai administration to convince members of the public that COVID-19 was under control.
In truth, of course, COVID-19 was under control for most of last year due to the Tsai administration’s proactive policies. The current outbreak was not inevitable, nor does it excuse the Tsai administration from missteps that created holes in the safety net to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as lowering quarantine periods for pilots—an issue that has become highly focused upon in past weeks. Nevertheless, it is not as though the current outbreak wholly diminishes last year’s accomplishments—Taiwan is still one of the last countries in the world to see near-lockdown conditions and Taiwan has to date only resorted to “soft lockdowns” short of a full lockdown.
Claims that Taiwan is lagging behind or wholly ignorant of international standards is often a way to make Taiwan, which has always been excluded from the international world, fall silent in shame. In recent days, this has particularly been the case with regards to vaccines, with the KMT and TPP attacking the low rate of vaccinations in Taiwan, the domestically manufactured vaccines that the Tsai administration is banking on to meet Taiwan’s need for vaccines, or the Tsai administration’s issues obtaining foreign vaccines.
Members of the pan-Blue camp have sought to criticize Taiwan’s inability to obtain vaccines. But one needs to simply look at a global map of which countries have been vaccinated, to observe that it is mostly powerful western countries with the capacity to domestically produce vaccines that have been vaccinated, such as the US and the UK. Vaccines such as the BioNtech vaccine are not easily available elsewhere, with many countries seeing more severe outbreaks than Taiwan experiencing delays in receiving vaccines. That Taiwan is getting vaccines at all during the recent outbreak is a sign of the priority placed by other countries on stabilizing the COVID-19 situation in Taiwan—likely due to Taiwan’s centrality to global supply chains.
Global vaccination rates. Source: Our World in Data
One can also compare the current outbreak in Taiwan to outbreaks that broke out in March, April, and May in Thailand and Vietnam, countries that were also praised for keeping COVID-19 under control earlier in the pandemic, but which have stumbled in past months. Namely, more transmissible variants have made it harder to permanently keep COVID-19 at bay. Despite their early successes fighting off COVID-19, these countries share with Taiwan low rates of vaccinations, with Vietnam having only .5% of its population vaccinated and Thailand having 2.5% of its population vaccinated. Apart from similar questions of access to vaccines, having COVID-19 under control early on may have contributed to slower vaccination later in the pandemic.
Even wealthy East Asian countries such as Japan have low rates of vaccination, with Japan having 4.4% of the population vaccinated. Indeed, Taiwan is hardly the only place in Asia that has experienced difficulties in motivating citizens to get vaccinated, with Japan seeing low rates of vaccination despite thousands of new cases per day, or low rates of vaccination in Hong Kong due to distrust of the government. Thailand and Japan similarly had low numbers of tests and Japan also restricted testing to individuals that were symptomatic.
Again, raising this is not to say that there were not missteps by the government, or that these governments did not simply just make the same mistakes that Taiwan did. But the Tsai administration is hardly the only government to deal with similar issues. Taiwan is not even the only country to be skeptical of Chinese vaccines, as indicated by multiple polls, with South Korea and Vietnam also wary of Chinese vaccines. It is not the case that Taiwan’s response to the recent outbreak—whether in terms of the government’s actions or the behavior of the public—was without regional precedents.
The KMT has frequently compared Taiwan to Singapore, which has vaccinated 1/3rd of its population, to suggest that Taiwan is lagging behind. A Singaporean doctor has also gained popularity on talk shows for insisting that Taiwan needs a full lockdown and that other measures are not effective. However, one notes that Singapore has around 1/4th of Taiwan’s population. And with falling case numbers, Rt, and infection rates at testing sites, it does appear that current measures are having an effect.
Along such lines, the TPP also released a chart suggesting that Taiwan has the lowest rate of vaccinations in the world, comparing Taiwan to the US, the UK, India, China, Russia, and Japan. But this, too, is misleading; this chart does not take into account population, resource disparity, capacity to produce vaccines, and rates of infection for all these countries and acts as if they are able to be compared. Again, when compared to Vietnam and other countries, it is not the case that Taiwan has the lowest vaccination rate in the world, with the chart stating that Taiwan has a vaccination rate of 1.28%. Vietnam and East Timor have lower rates of vaccination in just Asia alone.
Chart released by the TPP
While China is by far the global leader in vaccinations, with more than 400 million vaccinations if self-reported numbers are to be believed, one notes that these are mostly domestically-manufactured Chinese vaccines. Indeed, all of the other countries on the TPP’s chart apart from Taiwan are able to domestically manufacture vaccines, including Japan—which is developing its own vaccines at present, but also has the capacity to manufacture vaccines that have been licensed to it.
To that extent, attacks on Taiwan’s attempts to domestically manufacture vaccines have involved no shortage of disinformation, along with appeals to the specter of the international world to silence Taiwan. It is true that shortcuts are being taken, with phase three trials skipped for Taiwanese vaccines, though the government has argued that antibody counts should indicate the effectiveness of vaccines—even if mostly COVID-free Taiwan has lacked an environment with which to test the efficacy of vaccines. The government has also stressed that there do not appear to be dangerous side effects among the 3,000 to 3,700 individuals tested in phase two trials so far. The government has pointed to how not all countries went through phase three testing for their vaccines, that emergency use authorization took place during phase three, and that vaccines mostly began to be sold internationally before Emergency Use Authorization. Whether the Tsai administration’s gamble pays off remains to be seen.
However, the pan-Blue camp has taken to attacking domestically manufactured vaccines with the claim that they are not vaccines recognized by the international world, therefore they are unsafe. Otherwise, members of the pan-Blue camp have denigrated Taiwan’s capacities in the face of larger, more powerful countries to suggest that Taiwanese vaccines are unsafe.
A recent Facebook post by KMT legislator Hung Meng-kai claims that there is no point to developing domestic vaccines if they cannot receive international approval and that the DPP is “cold-blooded” for banking on domestic vaccines. Hung seems to be suggesting that domestic vaccines are useless if they cannot receive international approval—of course, one notes that domestically-manufactured vaccines could very well be highly effective, in spite of lack of international recognition.
Taiwan’s very nature as a political polity is to be a de facto state in all but name, unrecognized by the international community; similarly it should not be surprising that Taiwanese vaccines could potentially be effective at fighting COVID-19 but not receive international approval. If there are questions about the safety or effectiveness of vaccines, this is due to shortcuts taken in their testing and development due to exigency, not because of lack of international recognition.
Similarly, Taipei mayor and TPP chair Ko Wen-je has attempted to attack Taiwan’s vaccine program in the past, alleging that even more powerful countries in the region were not developing vaccines but somehow the Tsai administration believes that Taiwan can manufacture its own vaccines safely. Yet this is plainly not true; Japan and South Korea are both developing vaccines, which are also in Phase II trials. In making a factually untrue argument, Ko is simply appealing to Taiwan’s deeply-rooted sense of inferiority to other countries.
Facebook post by KMT legislator Hung Meng-kai attacking the Tsai administration on vaccines
Yet either way, even if it is taking a risk, it should be clear that the Tsai administration’s intentions are to save lives, and that it has placed saving lives over the credit of having internationally approved vaccines. To that extent, it is questionable whether Taiwan would be able to obtain international approval for its vaccines due to Chinese pressure within the UN, WHO, and other global institutions—it is only probable that Taiwanese domestically-manufactured vaccines could obtain international approval with strong backing from the US.
Furthermore, it is ironic that the specter of the international world is brought up by the pan-Blue to denigrate domestic vaccines, when the precise point of manufacturing vaccines domestically is to reduce reliance on outside powers. It is, after all, delays in shipping western-manufactured vaccines that Taiwan was supposed to have long ago that have pushed Taiwan toward developing its own vaccines, to avoid reliance on the continually revised timeline of western manufacturers in sending vaccines to Taiwan.
Still, it is nothing new for the pan-Blue camp to play on Taiwan’s insecurities regarding its international marginalization to politically benefit. It is, of course, the KMT that is primarily responsible for Taiwan’s international marginalization, by always seeking to yoke Taiwan to its abstract Chinese nationalism—one which has little to do with the day-to-day lives of Taiwanese. This continues even during a pandemic.