July 25, 2021

Taiwan experiences its first outbreak

An airport hotel belonging to a famous French chain, a member of a philanthropic club, and a hostess bar district in Taipei are shaking up the Taiwanese epidemic control strategy, until then set up as a model.

This country of 23.5 million inhabitants had, on April 27, 1,100 confirmed infections with SARS-CoV-2 since March 2020 – of which 984 were “imported”, that is to say concerned individuals declared positive after their arrival in the country during the compulsory quarantine.

Since then, the number of contaminations has multiplied by five. On Tuesday, May 25, the central command of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of Taiwan announced 283 new positive cases declared, all local except 2, and 261 other cases resulting from a statistical catch-up. Established at 12 dead at the end of April, the number of deaths has now reached 35. Since May 15, for the inhabitants of Grand Taipei (approximately 5 million inhabitants), and on May 19 for the rest of the country, restaurants, museums, places of entertainment, but also schools and universities, are closed – while any gathering of more than 5 people indoors and 10 outdoors is prohibited. First scheduled to end on May 28, these restrictions were extended Tuesday until June 14.

Hostess bars

The “Taiwanese model” had hitherto left the virus at the gates of the island, thanks to the early use of masks, the tracing of cases, the control, at the beginning of January 2020, of flights from Wuhan, then the imposition of a strict quarantine from March 19, 2020 to all passengers, foreigners or Taiwanese, entering the territory. After more than a year without containment or closure of shops or restaurants, the first serious breach came from the Novotel Hotel at Taoyuan Airport (Taipei International Airport), where a cluster was formed in April , involving hotel employees and cargo pilots of the national carrier China Airlines – then family members and many other contact cases.

Read also the column of Christophe Gaudin: “China wants to be the authoritarian antidote to its own poison”

In question, the reduction in the number of days of strict quarantine imposed on the pilots (passed from seven to five days in February then from five to three days on April 15), and the failures of the hotel, which had to pay heavy fines for having used, for the quarantine of flight personnel, a part of the building not certified for this purpose, and for accommodating people in quarantine and ordinary customers on the same floor. The relaxation of isolation conditions was said to have been decided on because of the organizational needs of the flight crew, under pressure from Taiwanese exporters – particularly of semiconductors.

In early May, another cluster was identified in hostess bars in the Wanhua district of Taipei: 172 of these establishments were inspected. A thousand people have tested positive in the neighborhood. The Taiwanese police, on the other hand, were looking for 27 runaway hostesses – foreigners in an illegal situation.

Opposition criticisms

At the same time, a member of Lions Clubs, former president of a local branch of this international philanthropic network, alone caused 115 cases of contact through dinners and meetings in which he participated. On May 13, Taiwanese Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung confirmed that the virus detected in the three clusters shared the same genetic sequence, and that there had been “Interhuman relations” between the bearer of Lions Clubs – nicknamed “Lion King” by the Taiwanese – and hostesses from Wanhua.

This epidemic outbreak, after a thirteen-month flawless fault, has placed the government of President Tsai Ing-wen under fire from opposition criticism: Johnny Chiang, the president of the Kouomintang, the main opposition force, recalled , Tuesday, May 25, that his party has long called to expand the number of screenings – still limited in Taiwan to contact cases and people with symptoms – and to accelerate the vaccination campaign. Only 311,000 Taiwanese have been vaccinated to date using AstraZeneca.

Read also Taipei, capital of the successful fight against Covid-19

On Monday, May 24, Taiwan, which is not part of the WHO, saw for the fifth consecutive year its request to participate in the World Health Assembly rejected, under pressure from China, and despite the support of the countries of the G7.