by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

NEW TAIPEI MAYOR Hou You-yi has come under fire over the death of a two-year-old child due to COVID-19 that took place on April 19th. 

The child in question, referred to publicly as “En En”, is the first child in Taiwan to die of COVID-19 complications since the start of the outbreak. Before En En’s death, no individual younger than thirty had died of COVID-19 in Taiwan. The cause of death was reported as brain stem encephalitis due to septicemia, prompting doctors to call attention to children at risk of encephalitis after contracting COVID-19. 

This is not the only controversy regarding child deaths due to COVID-19 in Taiwan. A previous controversy revolves around entertainer Antony Kuo alleging on social media that Taiwan was seeing a higher number of child deaths due to COVID-19 than reported, citing an unsourced claim from a purported doctor friend. 

New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. Photo credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

Subsequently, the issue became a flashpoint between the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps. After Kuo’s claims were reposted by a number of content farms, there were accusations against Kuo of disseminating disinformation. By contrast, the pan-Blue camp framed the matter as the Tsai administration cracking down on political freedoms of speech. 

What has led to public outrage regarding the En En case, however, is that it took 81 minutes between when a phone call was placed to emergency services and when an ambulance arrived. En En’s father, a man surnamed Lin, attempted to report to emergency services at the Zhonghe District Public Health Center that his child had developed purple bruising, a sign of a severely deteriorating condition, but received no answer. Lin subsequently called the New Taipei fire department, which told them to contact health authorities, and called 119 four times before an ambulance was dispatched. 

Since En En’s death, Lin has called for answers as to the delay, requesting that recordings and files of the phone call he placed be released. But Lin’s quest for answers has been frustrated, with the New Taipei government initially declining to release the recording and only intending to provide Lin with a written report and transcript of the incident. 

After a visit by Lin to the New Taipei fire department, a leak from a firefighter stated that the fire department was instructed to act busy during the visit, so as to save face for the department as to the slow response. Lin was then later told that he could listen to the recording, but that he could only do so within government offices. 

This did not prevent some of the recordings of the incident from leaking to the media, however. According to Lin, once he listened to the recording, it was found that there was no personnel on standby for ambulance dispatch services at the New Taipei Department of Health for 52 minutes. Moreover, the recording contains the sound of personnel laughing while reviewing En En’s medical information. 

Photo credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

For its part, the New Taipei Department of Health has sought to emphasize that it was only following Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) policies, and that policies that required ambulance requests to pass through the Department of Health have since been discontinued. Though the CECC, which coordinates Taiwan’s COVID-19 response, previously stated that there was no delay in admitting En En to the hospital, it has since responded that ambulance dispatch is not based on bed capacity at hospitals, and that 119 hotlines should contact hospitals to arrange and find available beds once contacted. Three New Taipei officials have been reported over the incident. 

Likely due to what is perceived as an attempted cover-up by New Taipei authorities, the scandal has probably hit Hou You-yi’s mayoral administration more than it has affected the CECC. Pan-green politicians have leveraged on the incident to attack Hou, with New Taipei city councilor Chen Chi-nen of the DPP calling for Hou’s censure. Taipei city councilor Miao Poya also stated that she believed the incident would not have taken place in Taipei. Attacks on Hou may be due to the fact that he is considered a frontrunner for the KMT’s choice of presidential candidate in the 2024 elections. NPP legislator Chiu Hsien-chih has also commented on the recordings as being outrageous. 

It is to be expected that the case will continue to be a lightning rod between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps. For his part, Hou has largely hung back and avoided commentary on the incident, leading to calls from DPP legislator Lai Pin-yu for Hou to publicly apologize. Though Hou later did so, his apology has still been criticized as insufficient. One expects the scandal to continue to affect Hou. 

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