“The pandemic is already extremely serious,” said Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung at a press conference with live streams that repeatedly crashed as tens of thousands tuned in to seek answers. “This is not a joke.”

An earlier outbreak starting last month, and linked to flagship carrier China Airlines, led the island to this week decide to quarantine all the airline’s pilots. But apart from one flight attendant with a history of travel, the source of the new cases, which include workers at tea houses and an amusement arcade, remains unclear.

As in other places that reduced case counts to near zero, coupled with vaccine hesitancy, Taiwan’s vaccine rollout has been slow.

A blow to Taiwan’s hard-fought success

Taiwan, which also battled the SARS coronavirus in 2003, was one of the earliest to sound the alarm on a pending global health crisis and implemented one of the world’s most effective Covid-19 prevention strategies. It quickly shut its borders and they haven’t opened up since. To date, the island with a population of 23 million has not gone into lockdown, reporting just 1,231 confirmed cases and 12 deaths. With life on the island proceeding largely as normal, Taiwan looked set to emerge from the pandemic largely unscathed—or even stronger than before.

Its achievement came despite being excluded from multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization—China staunchly opposes such membership as it claims the self-governing island as its own territory. Yet Taiwan’s success as other governments floundered during the pandemic drew attention to that exclusion. So far, 50 nations, including the US and other G7 members, have come out in support of Taiwan’s bid for an invitation as an observer to the upcoming 74th World Health Assembly this month that will focus on the pandemic, and where it could share its public health expertise on the world stage.

These new developments, however, threaten to unravel that progress and the island’s near-perfect Covid track record.

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