Taiwan’s success story in combating the coronavirus began to unravel two weeks ago, when a spike in local cases led to the country’s first sustained community outbreak.
During that time, a COVID-19 response previously defined by transparency and trust has become muddled with political bickering, vaccine disinformation, and a torrent of government criticism as Taiwan tries to comprehend exactly what went wrong.
Taiwan has recorded 6,001 domestic infections since May 14. Before that date, it had recorded a total of just 135 local cases.
“The overall trend [of new cases] is flat, and that is not a very good sign,” Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at a Friday briefing. “The outbreak is plateauing, but we haven’t seen [the numbers] begin to fall.”
The outbreak began with a cluster in April at an airport hotel used to house quarantining pilots. The hotel had put some pilots and crew in a second building also used to house domestic guests. Many cases were then traced to a district of Taipei known for its “tea houses,” or adult entertainment venues, which were frequented by infected pilots and crew members.
Taiwan is now racing to soothe public anxieties over the virus, along with frustrations over the government’s difficulties in procuring COVID-19 vaccines.
President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday said the Chinese government had prevented Taiwan from signing a deal with the German firm BioNTech to procure Pfizer vaccines – the first time Taiwan has directly accused China of meddling in vaccine deals.
“Taiwan was close to sealing the deal with the German plant, but because of China’s intervention, we still can’t sign the contract,” Tsai told members of her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai added that Taiwan had “smoothly” ordered AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines in the past from the United Kingdom and United States.
Chen, the health minister, said Friday that BioNTech had asked Taiwan in January to remove the words “my country” from a news release announcing a vaccine deal.
The CECC revised the release to read “Taiwan” but was then told the deal would be delayed due to a reassessment of global vaccine supply, Chen said.
Taiwan has thus far received about 700,000 AstraZeneca shots and has vaccinated less than 1 percent of its population. It received its first batch of 150,000 Moderna doses on Friday.
Beijing has offered to provide Taiwan with Chinese-made vaccines in a bid to put pressure on the DPP. Many Taiwanese, however, are skeptical not only of Beijing’s motives but of its vaccines, which have lower levels of efficacy than many competitors.
Tsai’s approval rating has slipped in recent weeks, according to a recently conducted poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, an outfit generally regarded as being warm to the “deep-green” faction of the DPP that opposes Tsai.
The CECC also said Friday it had agreed to allow businesses to use rapid testing to check staff for COVID-19. Taiwan has been criticized for months for not adopting mass testing as a component of its coronavirus containment strategy, and many Taiwanese workplaces have also come under fire in the past two weeks for not allowing employees to work from home.