The tables of his dinner in the Taiwanese capital are teeming with customers, the waiters teeming with dishes of squid soup and rice noodles, and talking and laughter fill the air.
Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like his to remain open despite a spate of Covid infections — which hit more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone — sweeping the island.
Things might have been so different. Until recently, the island had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s company was closed for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, which dealt a blow to its employees — and its bottom line — leaving him “heartbreaking.”
“We were lucky enough to survive and move on,” he said.
For Chen, it’s a welcome shift that has allowed his company to remain relatively unaffected by the outbreak. While he remains concerned about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies – such as Singapore – that have managed to weather similar mindset changes.
“I think we have to overcome our fears and be careful step by step,” he said.
A tale of two cities
Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, which is home to a sizable Taiwanese community, have been closed for weeks.
It’s a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.
“It’s very difficult for him. We don’t talk about it on the political front, but my brother has been quarantined for 45 days without being able to leave his home. At least he can still order takeaways – in some neighborhoods people can’t and they have to wait for the government to send supplies.”
Lessons from Shanghai
It also reflects a recognition that the onset of the Omicron variant has left zero Covid economies with a choice: either double down like China with increasingly strict measures, or take the opportunity offered by high vaccination rates to open up.
Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen opted for the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus on ensuring as much normal life as possible for its residents, rather than aiming for zero infections.
Ironically, it is the freedom the island enjoyed during its long spell of zero-Covid that made that choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president from 2016 to 2020.
“Over the past two years, people here have enjoyed a very free life — they lived normal lives and went to work normally. So we don’t like city closures or mass testing, and we don’t think it’s helpful in controlling the spread of the virus,” Chen said.
Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, had given the milder variant a chance because it “has a very high infectivity, but quite low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, have been fully vaccinated with two injections to date.
“(Taiwanese people) saw the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t really see the need to use city locks to contain the Omicron variant. It’s very difficult, a mission impossible.”
Chen said Taiwan should now focus on increasing coverage of Covid-19 boosters, as well as increasing the distribution of antiviral drugs and rapid diagnostic kits to the community.
The government’s decision is popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they felt Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict lockdown measures imposed in mainland China.
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in mainland China for a few years, found it unfeasible to eradicate the virus.
“If even after vaccination we still had severe restrictions like in the (Chinese) mainland, it would be very painful and there would be no point in getting the vaccines,” he said.
A beacon of hope?
But if Taiwan’s approach is driven in part by a desire to avoid a Shanghai-esque fate, there are also optimists who question whether it could have an effect in the opposite direction — giving hoped to China’s trapped cities that there is indeed a way out of the zero Covid angle.
Chen Chien-jen, who as vice president led Taiwan’s early Covid-19 response, said many Taiwanese were initially skeptical about abandoning the elimination strategy because it had been successful in maintaining low levels of infection for so long. community transfer.
Taiwan had previously only experienced one major outbreak of Covid-19 – in May last year. That time, it banned in-person dining, closed nightspots, and suspended schools to curb the spread. It then managed to keep the number of cases at zero or near zero until just March 15 of this year.
But as the latest outbreak grew, Taiwanese realized that the island could afford to live with a less severe variant and high vaccination levels.
The rewards are plain to see. The quarantine for overseas arrivals has been reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory scanning of QR codes before entering restaurants and shops has been abolished. Close contacts of confirmed patients now have to quarantine for just three days.
There is another advantage: no more fighting in vain. As Chen put it, “We can see that a zero-covid policy can never reach the goal of completely eradicating the virus in any country.”
Still, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is fully prepared to move forward.
Long lines have formed daily at pharmacies in Taipei since early May, as cases rose, as residents rush to buy quick test kits. Many leave empty-handed despite standing in line for hours.
The health ministry has said those without Covid-19 symptoms must first test positive on a rapid test if they want to qualify for a more accurate PCR test, which has only increased demand.
The difficulty of purchasing the test kits has prompted some residents to complain about the authorities’ lack of preparedness.
“It would have been better for the residents to be (prepared) before we started living with the virus,” said a mother named Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy. “Many families still lack access to rapid test kits.”
Other parents fear that their children, who still do not qualify for vaccination in Taiwan, are vulnerable.
“I feel that the government has not taken children into account in their efforts to live with the virus,” said another mother, named Chang, whose two children are in kindergarten. “I’m concerned…I’ve avoided taking my kids to indoor playgrounds, and I only take them to parks when there are fewer people.”
“Right now there are changes to the rules every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be very confusing and it’s better to have a plan.”