Country praised for model COVID response suffers worst outbreak of crisis after hotel mix-up

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The country has  seen a huge  surge in cases. (Reuters)
Taiwan has seen a huge surge in cases. (Reuters)

A country that has been praised for its coronavirus response is now suffering one of its worst outbreaks of the whole pandemic.

The island of Taiwan, which has had enviable success in containing COVID-19, imposed new restrictions in its capital city Taipei on Saturday amid an uptick in community transmission.

The outbreak has reportedly been linked back to a mix-up in an airport hotel in April that saw China Airlines staff quarantining alongside ordinary domestic tourists.

The country reported 333 new cases on Monday, raising its total to 2,017 cases since the pandemic began.

Watch: Soldiers disinfect station amid Taiwan COVID surge

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As the UK continues to loosen restrictions due to its low case numbers, Taiwan’s outbreak serves as a reminder of how delicate the COVID situation remains.

Why has Taiwan kept infections so low?

Taiwan has been repeatedly hailed as one of the pandemic’s success stories.

Before this month began, the country had recorded just 1,128 COVID cases and 12 deaths since the virus first emerged.

The country has  seen a huge  surge in cases. (Our World in Data)
The country has seen a huge surge in cases. (Our World in Data)

The Taiwanese government has managed to keep infections so low due to its proactive response to implementing health measures.

In fact, it has managed to avoid plunging its citizens into a full national lockdown altogether.

Researchers from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) identified three critical measures that Taiwan took to control community transmission – contact-tracing, testing, and quarantine or isolation treatment.

Soldiers disinfect Wanhua district, an area that has one of the most cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the city, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 16, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Soldiers disinfect Wanhua district, an area that has one of the most cases of coronavirus disease. (Reuters)

But the government has also executed these measures faster than most countries due to effective leadership and strong public health infrastructure, the researchers said.

From the offset, Taiwan deployed a sophisticated system to track those who have been in contact with confirmed cases.

It also rolled out an electronic monitoring network to ensure those in quarantine remain at home.

These measures were complemented by effective social care, like free access to testing and the government footing quarantine costs, BMJ researchers said.

A sign reminding people to wear protective face masks, wash hands and keep social distancing is placed in front of a night market, amid an increasing number of COVID-19 infections, in Taipei, Taiwan, May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang
A sign reminding people to wear protective face masks, wash hands and keep social distancing is placed in front of a night market. (Reuters)

One example of its stringent COVID response was when the government cancelled large-scale Lunar New Year events due to a tiny cluster of just 15 people in January this year.

What went wrong?

Taiwan has seen a surge of infections over the last week that has been linked by DNA sequencing to an outbreak at the Novotel hotel at Taoyuan International Airport in April.

The spread began among China Airlines pilots and crew members, according to Nikkei Asia.

At the time, non-vaccinated pilots and airline crew members were required to quarantine for at least three days.

People wearing protective face masks walk past a sign reading
People wearing protective face masks walk past a sign reading: 'Wear protective face mask, wash your hands and keep social distancing.' (Reuters)

Meanwhile, the hotel had reportedly been running a promotion for domestic tourists to boost occupancy since Taiwan remains closed to foreign tourists.

But pilots and crew members were put in a Novotel building that had not been designated as a quarantine facility and where ordinary guests were staying, Nikkei Asia reported.

By May 7, the virus had spread to at least 29 people and over the last week Taiwan has reported a more than 700 further cases.

Watch: Taiwan and Malaysia step up fight against COVID

Despite this surge, the rates are still incredibly low compared to other countries.

For example, the UK has reported 4.47 million COVID cases to date.

Taiwan is nevertheless responding stringently and quickly to what the uptick in cases.

What has been the reaction?

The outbreak has alarmed a population that had become accustomed to life staying close to normal and prompted the government to tighten curbs.

Authorities raised the alert level for Taipei and the surrounding area of New Taipei City on Saturday.

The level 3 alert, which remains in effect for two weeks, requires people to wear a mask outdoors and limits indoor gatherings to five people and outdoor gatherings to 10 people.

Health minister Chen Shih-chung said a "level of risk" in certain hot spots, such as Taipei's gritty Wanhua district, had spurred the decision to raise the alert level.

Two women wear protective face masks while shopping for instant noodles following a surge of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections in Taipei, Taiwan May 17, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang
Two women wear protective face masks while buying instant noodles following a surge of coronavirus infections. (Reuters)

"Only by doing this can infections be dealt with and controlled," he told reporters.

The government is also encouraging work and study from home and shutting cinemas and entertainment spots.

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je urged people to stay home as much as possible, adding that schools teaching should move online.

But the new measures have also triggered panic buying goods such as instant noodles and toilet paper

People queue to buy face masks at a store, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Taipei Taiwan, May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang
People queue to buy face masks at a store, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease. (Reuters)

In messages late on Saturday, the president, premier and economy ministry took to Facebook to say there was no need to hoard or rush to the shops, after people scrambled to stock up on basic goods, mainly instant noodles and toilet paper.

The surge in cases has also prompted a scramble for vaccines as the island’s limited stock of 300,000 doses rapidly runs out while only about 1% of its 23 million people vaccinated.

The GAVI Vaccine Alliance, which with the World Health Organization is jointly running the COVAX scheme to provide doses to countries which may have difficulties obtaining them, said more AstraZeneca vaccines were coming to Taiwan

COVAX expects Taiwan should receive allocated doses by the end of June at the latest, the alliance said in a statement to Reuters.

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Taiwan has also ordered 20 million vaccine doses, mostly from AstraZeneca but also from Moderna, though global shortages have curtailed supplies.

Health authorities last week stopped giving shots to people who are not on priority lists that include the elderly and medical staff.

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