Taiwan imposes strict social curbs to stem its worst Covid outbreak

Taiwan, which has been among the most successful globally at containing Covid-19, has introduced two weeks of strict social distancing measures as it reported more than 200 new cases in its first significant community outbreak of the virus.

The move was a shock for the country which has recorded some of the lowest case counts per capita, with just 1,682 cases and 12 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Its successful containment of the virus has afforded its residents largely normal lives amid the widespread disruption of coronavirus elsewhere.

But Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, was forced to take to social media to urge people to stop panic buying as locals bought up staples such as instant noodles and toilet paper on the news on the restrictions.

An outbreak this month ballooned to 206 new locally transmitted cases on Sunday, the health ministry said, adding that 186 of them were in the capital Taipei and its outskirts.

On Saturday, when Taiwan reported 180 new local cases, the government banned indoor social gatherings of more than five people and outdoor gatherings of more than 10 in Taipei and the surrounding area. Mask wearing will be mandatory everywhere, and all shops and restaurants that remain open must register customers’ contact information.

Leisure and entertainment venues were forced to close across the country under the restrictions, which are scheduled to last until May 28.

Authorities further announced on Sunday that they were further stepping up testing and that hospitals will have to suspend all but the most urgent and critical surgery and treatments until the risk of infection has receded.

Taiwan had previously drawn accolades for its success containing coronavirus, recording just 1.682 cases and 12 deaths. It reported 206 new locally transmitted cases on Sunday © Reuters

Taiwan’s strong performance in preventing local outbreaks had buoyed public confidence and satisfaction with Tsai’s administration and her public health team.

That sentiment has now been shaken, particularly because of Taiwan’s slow vaccination rate — a shortcoming partly attributable to health authorities’ caution with vaccines as long as there was no local spread, and partly to the government’s struggle to close a vaccine deal with Pfizer over opposition from China.

Taiwan’s tech-heavy Taiex index dropped 8.4 per cent last week, suffering its worst intraday fall since 1969 on Wednesday as investors anticipated curbs on business to stem the worsening outbreak. Taiex futures were up 1 per cent on Sunday, according to Bloomberg.

Only 186,149 of the population of more than 23m have had their first jab as of Saturday. Health authorities only have about 130,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines left; 5.05m doses of Moderna’s shot are expected to arrive in June. Locally-developed vaccines are also scheduled to become available from July.

On Saturday, Taiwan announced the temporary suspension of its voluntary, paid Covid-19 vaccination programme, as it urged those in priority groups to get inoculated as soon as possible.

Tsai said Taiwan had a year of preparation under its belt, with sufficient supplies of protective and medical equipment, as well as consumer goods. “There is no need to panic, be sure to remain calm,” she said on Facebook as she reminded residents that stores would continue to operate as usual.

Government officials posted images of well-stocked warehouses of personal protective equipment and other essentials on social media in an effort to calm resident’s nerves. Carrefour said it would ration the sales of masks, toilet paper, alcohol and instant noodles to prevent hoarding.

Taiwan’s ability to avoid lockdowns and other restrictions during the pandemic has safeguarded the country from the worst of the economic pain experienced elsewhere.

Its gross domestic product grew about 3 per cent last year, before picking up to 8.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2021, a pace not seen in decades. The brisk economic performance has been driven by booming electronics exports and a net inflow of Taiwanese residents last year seeking refuge from the pandemic in other countries, notably the US.

The cabinet proposed a NT$210bn (US$7.2bn) financial support package this week to cushion any short-term blow to consumption from the outbreak.

“As long as we can quickly get things under control and effectively block the spread of the pandemic . . . a new wave of consumption will be stimulated after the situation calms down and this year’s economic growth can still be realised as forecast,” the government said in a statement after a meeting of top economic officials on Sunday morning.

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