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Illustration by Security Management

Prevention Fatigue Exacerbates COVID-19 Spike in Taiwan

After nearly 18 months of pandemic-mitigation success—including a 250-day streak of zero local COVID-19 cases—Taiwan is facing a sharp spike in cases. The island’s previous success had led to complacency, however, with low vaccination rates (fewer than 3 percent of its 23.5 million people) and designated COVID-19 hospital wards being repurposed for other patients, Al Jazeera reported.

Now, the island’s COVID-19 cases ramped up from just 1,200 to 11,000—mostly in May 2021—and 308 people have died from the disease.

According to Time, Taiwan imposed world-leading infection control measures last year, implementing temperature checks and stronger border controls mere weeks after the first reports of a mysterious viral pneumonia came out of China. Taiwan implemented strict infection control measures at hospitals and closed its borders to nearly all non-residents. Masks were distributed to the population and made mandatory on mass transit. All of these measures combined meant Taiwan had only 400 confirmed COVID-19 cases by mid-April 2020, compared to more than 30,000 infections per day in the United States.

But Taiwan began to let its guard down over the summer, allowing large crowds to return to concerts, baseball games, and religious festivals, and face masks became rarer and rarer. And the emergence of new, more transmissible COVID-19 variants and some relaxed prevention measures—such as a hotel’s housing quarantined cargo flight crews and non-quarantine guests in the same building—combined to spread the virus.

A super-spreader event—9 May was Mother’s Day in Taiwan, and many people traveled for family gatherings and packed out restaurants—drove cases higher. On 19 May, Taiwan’s central epidemic command center (CECC) reported 264 new cases of COVID-19 and ordered Taiwan into a level three alert out of a four-tier system. The Guardian reported that this level limits gatherings, mandates public mask-wearing, and closes entertainment businesses and schools. It does not shutter dine-in service at restaurants or enforce remote work arrangements for employers.

In addition, Time reported, Taiwan’s previous pandemic prevention success has come back to bite it—very few people in Taiwan were exposed to COVID-19 and therefore few have antibodies. Taiwan also didn’t join the race to purchase vaccines until after they were authorized by other regulators, putting the island far back on the list to receive doses. According to an Al Jazeera interview with Taiwan’s former vice president and health minister Chen Chien-jen, Taiwanese officials hope to vaccinate 3 million people in June, with another 6 million vaccine doses coming through in July and August.

“The only thing we can do is immunization,” Chen said. “We try to get everybody to have resistance to it, and more importantly, the immunization has to be implemented as soon as possible and on as large a scale as possible. This isn’t only for Taiwan, this is for the rest of the world.”