Graeme Maxton

Climate Change Economist and Author

Taiwan’s spaceship fighting to fly again

May 2021

Since the coronavirus pandemic began we have been fortunate enough to live in a place which has been almost entirely unaffected, certainly until a few weeks ago. That allowed us to watch what was happening in the rest of the world, as if from a spaceship window. And while what we saw often shocked us, it rarely surprised us. With eyebrows raised and mouths hanging open, we watched helplessly as people in other countries made lots of really stupid decisions, when the terrible outcome was – certainly to us – entirely predictable.

Thousands of people refused to wear masks, or would join together for big celebratory events and then appear genuinely surprised when the number of infections mushroomed. Lock-downs would be eased far too early, when there were still high numbers of new daily infections. Then governments would cheerily chirp about their successes for a few weeks before everything again turned sour. Everyone would then be shocked, as if this hadn’t been expected.

Something similar is happening again now. In an effort to allow people to satisfy their uncontrollable desires to go on holiday this summer, restaurants across Europe are reopening, as are borders. This, despite the fact that only a small minority of people have been fully vaccinated and there are new – and easily transmitted – variants of the virus spreading rapidly. Though the number of new cases a day in most of Europe is still very high, Brussels is even working on a post-corona economic recovery plan, as if the virus has now gone away. This blatantly ignores the fact that global infections are close to their highest ever level and still rising.

A few weeks ago however, our Taiwanese spaceship had a bit of a crash-landing.

In the previous 16 months the island had recorded just 1,232 cases of the coronavirus and almost all (90%+) of these had been ‘imported’ – that is, they were people who had been infected overseas and isolated on their return. There had been almost no community transmission. Among Taiwan’s 23 million citizens just 12 had died.

Falling out of orbit

Then everything went a bit awry. Some pilots (from planes not spaceships) returned with the virus and they infected some of their colleagues as well as staff in one of the quarantine hotels. This led to further infections, including in places where contact tracing is harder – in gambling houses and hostess bars (euphemistically known as ‘teahouses’).

On 12 May 2021, Taiwan suddenly announced 16 new local infections, the highest number of community infections ever. Since then, it has recorded around 300 new cases a day. As of today, (24 May 2021) more than 4,000 people have been infected and 23 have died.

The government has responded swiftly, however. Within days of the initial hike in numbers, more than 600,000 people were sent text messages telling them to monitor their health. Cities were disinfected and all large gatherings were cancelled. Days later the borders were completely shut to non-residents. Schools were closed and all non-essential businesses were asked to shut shop. Restaurants are now only allowed to sell takeaway meals. The streets are almost empty and the public transport network has lost most of its passengers. To enter a building everyone must scan a QR code so the authorities can track who’s been where. It is illegal to go outside without a mask with the police even touring the parks to make sure everyone complies.

Compare this to Austria, which has six times as many new cases a day per head right now. The bars and restaurants have just reopened, as have the schools, theatres and galleries. While there is social distancing and people must wear masks, those who have been vaccinated, tested or have recovered from the virus can eat indoors. The borders are open.

It is much the same in the rest of Europe, where the push to open up has suddenly become stronger again, and any desire to contain the virus has been pushed aside. Though the number of people being infected every day is much higher than it was at the peak of the first wave in 2020, when everything was in lock-down, the region is opening-up.

Will Taiwan’s efforts allow it to get its spaceship back into orbit?

We’ll keep you posted.

Taiwan’s efforts to recover from its coronavirus setback might just fly. We’ll keep you posted.