One of the world’s best Covid-19 success stories is inching closer to a lockdown

Taiwan is facing a looming lockdown.
Taiwan is facing a looming lockdown.
Image: Reuters/Ann Wang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Taiwan is a global leader in shutting down Covid-19, and successfully flattened the curve well before most countries even understood the damage the coronavirus could cause. Now, with new clusters of untraceable infections recorded in the island’s biggest cities, the threat of Taiwan’s first-ever lockdown looms large.

Today (May 12), health authorities reported the highest single-day tally of new infections—16 local cases in Taipei, New Taipei, Keelung, and Yilan. It’s a small number compared to other countries, but a big deal for this rare haven that was completely free of Covid-19 just weeks ago.

Elsewhere in Asia, India is battling a severe wave of disease, which many public health experts have blamed on government mismanagement. Taiwan’s worrying resurgence in cases, however,  comes despite strict border, tracing, and quarantine policies, and as other Asian governments with stringent Covid-19 measures, from Japan to Singapore, also battle upticks in cases.

Is Taiwan heading for its first lockdown?

The government is swiftly tightening pandemic measures, sending its stock market into a spin and people into panic mode. Taiwan raised its pandemic alert level to 2 out of 4, banning large-scale indoor and outdoor events—those with more than 100 and 500 people, respectively—until June 8.

Schools are switching to online classes and companies are ordering employees to work from home. The health ministry is monitoring the situation closely, mulling over a decision to move to level 3, which stops short of a lockdown and limits all gatherings to five people indoors and 10 outdoors, as well as the closure of non-essential businesses. Officials are urging people to stay calm.

“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.