In Depth

Is Covid success story Taiwan on brink of an outbreak?

Authorities considering upping alert level as cluster of untraced domestic infections reported

Taiwan has been held up as an example of how to tackle Covid since the pandemic began, with the island nation avoiding large outbreaks and the type of restrictions imposed elsewhere across the globe.

But now that run of success may be drawing to a close, as the authorities sound the alarm after 16 new domestic cases were reported on Wednesday - the most yet in Taiwan in a single day.

In a further worrying twist, six coronavirus cases detected in the northeast city of Yilan came “from an unknown source”, The Guardian reports. “Five of them are linked to an arcade hall, while another - a retiree with a busy social schedule - has no known link to any other cases.”

‘More careless’

The six cases in Yilan follow another outbreak of “at least 36 people linked to China Airlines staff and a Taoyuan Airport hotel”, The Guardian says. The cluster around the northern airport included “13 pilots and one flight attendant at the airline”, and prompted “mandatory quarantine of dozens of other staff members” that “caused cutbacks in cargo services”. 

Until now, early and effective prevention measures have shielded Taiwan from the worst of the pandemic, with fewer than 1,250 cases reported and 12 deaths, according to latest data from John Hopkins University. However, Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang has warned that the population is becoming “more relaxed or careless as time goes by”.

The new cluster of cases has “unnerved an island that has taken pride in its decisive response” to the pandemic, with measures including the implementation of an “effective contact-tracing and quarantine system”, says Al Jazeera. Health Minister Chen Shih-chung has “urged people to stay calm, noting that Taiwan had an effective disease response mechanism”, the broadcaster reports. 

He told the state-owned Central News Agency (CNA) on Wednesday that Taiwan may raise its pandemic alert level to three in “coming days”, a move that would include the closure of shops selling non-essential items. Restrictions on public gatherings have already been introduced.

The island is also “reimposing social distancing and mask rules”, the South China Morning Post reports, as well as introducing rules that mean “hospital patients and residents of long-term care facilities will not be able to have visitors for the next four weeks”. 

“School closures and limiting people to their own neighbourhoods” will also be reintroduced, but only in “areas with community transmission”, The Guardian adds.

“As there are different local clusters, we are no longer on the verge of community transmission, but in the [first stage] of community transmission,” Chen told the Legislative Yuan - the Taiwanese parliament - yesterday.

“For the time being, these restrictions will be imposed from today until 8 June,” he added.

Regional spread

Taiwan closed its borders early in the pandemic in order to keep infections under control. But despite the continuation of that prompt and decisive action, one of the newly detected cases has been linked to India, where an aggressive outbreak of a “double mutant” Covid strain has pushed medical facilities to breaking point and driven consecutive record daily infection rates.

While infections rates currently remain low in Taiwan, the country’s low rate of Covid vaccination is fuelling concern about the new outbreaks. Taiwan has so far administered just 112,543 vaccines, which equates to 0.47 per 100 people receiving at least one dose, according to latest Oxford University tracking.

The new coronavirus cases come as Singapore and Vietnam - both of which also been successful in stopping the spread - also announce “sudden new outbreaks of the disease”, Al Jazeera says. 

English-language Asian news network CNA reports that Singapore has reported ten new community cases this week, of which seven were linked to a cluster of cases linked to the city-state’s Changi Airport. Meanwhile, Vietnam reported 102 new infections on Sunday and is now battling a fast-spreading outbreak that Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has said threatens “political stability”.

“The risk for the outbreak to spread nationwide is very high,” Chinh said on Sunday. “We need to deploy stronger measures to curb the outbreak.

“If the outbreak spread nationwide, it would affect political stability, people's health and the National Assembly and People’s Council elections, and the consequence would be unpredictable.”

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