Nowhere is watching the zero-Covid horror show unfolding in China more closely than Taiwan, where it is encouraging the island to ease restrictions, even as cases of the infectious Omicron variant spike. Taiwan’s premier Su Tseng-chang has said the extreme measures being imposed on the other side of the Taiwan Strait are ‘cruel’ and his country would not follow suit. From next week, mandatory quarantine for arrivals in Taiwan will be cut to seven days from the current ten, as the island moves gradually towards a policy of trying to live with the virus.
The Covid shackles are now coming off across Asia, with most countries relaxing or lifting restrictions completely. This week New Zealand reopened its borders to vaccinated and Covid-negative visitors from more than 60 countries, after two years of closure. The region was in the vanguard of the zero-Covid movement, but now recognises that stamping out the virus completely is no longer realistic with the more infectious but less deadly Omicron.
China is a lonely exception, and Shanghai’s ordeal has been closely watched in Taiwan, where TV shows and newspapers have followed the traumatic stories of Taiwanese living in China’s largest city, barricaded in their homes and struggling to secure food and medical supplies amid a harsh and brutally enforced lockdown.
For much of the pandemic, Taiwan has been one of the world’s biggest Covid success stories, largely keeping infections in check. But the number of cases of Omicron in Taiwan is now soaring. Officials announced a little over 30,000 cases on Thursday, bringing the total to more than 200,000 in a population of 24 million. But the vast majority, more than 99 per cent, were mild or asymptomatic.
About 80 per cent of the population has now received two doses of vaccine, with almost two-thirds boosted, though only 72 per cent of those over 75 are fully vaccinated.
Taiwan’s coronavirus battle has at time been threatened by the deep hostility of China’s communist leaders, who have prevented the island from taking part in the World Health Assembly (WHA), a body that controls the World Health Organisation, and consists of all UN member states. Beijing used its influence to corral enough countries to deny a seat to Taiwan. Beijing claims the democratic self-ruling island is part of China and has threatened to take it by force if necessary.
In December 2019, it was Taiwan that first identified worrying internal hospital reports emerging in Wuhan that indicated a possible new and threatening virus. The health authorities in Taipei then alerted the WHO, raising concerns in an email about a number of ‘atypical pneumonia cases’ in the Chinese city that had been ‘isolated for treatment’, suggesting there was a fear the virus could pass between humans. The warnings were ignored.
Beijing sought to limit Taipei’s access to vaccines. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said a 2021 deal with Germany’s BioNTech for the purchase of 5 million shots was torpedoed by Beijing. BioNTech asked that the word ‘country’ be removed from the joint announcement of the deal. ‘BioNTech suddenly sent a letter, saying they strongly recommend us to change the word “our country” in the Chinese version of the press release,’ said health minister, Chen Shih-chung. A week later BioNTech told Taiwan the completion of the deal was on hold due to a ‘revaluation of global vaccine supply and adjustment times’.
Taiwan was able to get its early doses after donations from Japan, the US and Lithuania, and an arms-length deal under which BioNTech sold jabs to two of Taiwan’s giant tech firms, who then passed them on to the health authorities.
Taiwan now finds itself in a far happier position than China, where barely half of the over 80s are fully vaccinated and just a fifth are boosted. Furthermore, the Communist party has not allowed the import of foreign vaccines, relying on home-gown jabs which are not as effective against Omicron.
The main challenge for Taiwan now is to hold its nerve through the inevitable spike of infections are as moves to a policy of living with the virus. In contrast, Xi Jinping is increasingly boxed in by his zero-Covid fanaticism. In a report to lawmakers last week, the National Security Bureau, Taiwan’s main spy agency, said that while it could see no internal force set to challenge Xi’s power, the policy of endless lockdowns was increasing the ‘political security risk’ to Xi. The growing anger will ‘hit the credibility of the CCP leader and his confidants,’ the agency said. Taiwan can be forgiven a little gloating.