TAIPEI: Two of the last two governments in the world to stick to the zero covid policy are separated by just 100 miles of water. As both deal with the Omicron outbreaks, the distance between their approaches to the virus is rapidly expanding.
In China, government authorities have imposed full or partial lockdowns in dozens of cities, home to hundreds of millions of people, in a desperate attempt to quell multiplying clusters of infections.
In Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims just off the coast of China’s Fujian province, the government has responded to its own Omicron outbreak by phasing out contact tracing, reducing quarantine times and launching a campaign to quell the public concerns about the virus.
Speaking to reporters in Taipei on Tuesday, Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung said the government hopes the Omicron outbreak there will eventually morph into a “flu-like situation.”
Chinese authorities have repeatedly dismissed comparisons between Covid-19 and the flu, highlighting the dangers of the new virus even as new cases drop. Wrapping up a visit to Shanghai, where daily new cases have fallen below 5,000 from a peak of more than 27,000 three weeks ago, Chinese Vice Premier Sun Chunlan recently told officials the city should “quarantine everyone who needs to be quarantined” and prevent a resurgence. of the virus.
China reported roughly 5,500 new cases across the country on Wednesday, including 51 in Beijing, where officials imposed localized lockdown measures and travel restrictions in an effort to avoid the fate of Shanghai.
Taiwan posted a daily record 28,420 new cases on Wednesday, marking a week of daily new cases above 10,000.
China and Taiwan have stuck to zero-Covid policies for similar reasons, including relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly.
Just over half of Chinese over 80 had received two doses of the vaccine by mid-March, according to government data, and fewer than one in five received a booster. Taiwan has been more successful with vaccination, with about 60% of people over the age of 75 receiving booster shots, though almost 20% remain completely unvaccinated.
In both China and Taiwan, leaders have been reluctant to relax controls ahead of political events scheduled for later this year. China’s Communist Party is preparing to hold a national congress in the fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to take up a precedent-breaking third term, while Taiwan is scheduled to hold local elections in November, including key races for the mayor’s office that are expected to set the stage for a presidential election in 2024.
The divergence between the Chinese and Taiwanese responses to Omicron is being closely watched by public health experts, many of whom have questioned the feasibility of trying to eradicate a highly transmissible pathogen once it has taken hold.
In China, the zero covid approach has come at an immense cost. Food shortages and other missteps in Shanghai, the country’s lockdown financial capital, have eroded local confidence in the Communist Party leadership, while the domino effect of lockdowns on manufacturing and consumer spending have produced conditions similar to a recession.
In that context, Taiwanese health officials have explicitly rejected the idea of following China’s lead.
“There are still people asking me to learn from Shanghai. I really can’t understand what I can learn from them,” Mr. Chen said in mid-April, when the Omicron outbreak in Taiwan was just beginning to gather pace.
Instead, Taiwanese officials have gradually loosened restrictions even as cases rise, with the goal of eventually living with the virus like much of the world without the high death tolls experienced by the US and many other countries. .
Taiwan last week abandoned its massive contact tracing system, which used a combination of QR codes and text messages to track people’s movements, and reduced home quarantine for close contacts from 10 days to three. Taiwanese health officials announced mandatory home quarantine on Tuesday. for incoming travelers it would be shortened from 10 to seven days.
Ho Mei-shang, a virology expert and associate researcher at Academic Sinica, Taiwan’s national research institute, said one of the challenges for the island has been persuading Taiwanese, most of whom have lived in a bubble in largely covid-19 free since the start of the pandemic, so as not to overreact to the outbreak.
“We have to do a little readjustment and that’s the most psychologically difficult part,” he said.
Taiwanese health officials have made a point of emphasizing the large percentage of infections (over 99.5%) that have been mild or asymptomatic, by printing the number in large print and highlighting it in pink in daily notices sent through the social media.
“The closer the virus is, the calmer we have to be,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said after her visit to the island’s Central Epidemic Command Center last week.
Hsin Shih, a nurse at a hospital in the Taiwanese city of Taichung, said fear of the virus was so widespread during a smaller outbreak of the Alpha variant in May last year that patients with other conditions avoided coming for care. That has not been the case with the current outbreak, she said.
“Now, it’s busier than a department store having an anniversary sale,” he said.
The risks to Taiwan of relaxing controls remain great given the number of older people who remain unvaccinated, public health experts said.
Mr. Chen, Taiwan’s health minister, said he remained concerned about slow progress in increasing the vaccination rate of the elderly on Tuesday, when five unvaccinated elderly people died of covid-19.
“The more vaccines that are administered, the better our society will be protected,” Chen said.
Health authorities in Beijing said on Wednesday that close contacts faced 10 days in centralized quarantine facilities plus another seven days of home quarantine. The city also closed some subway stations and ordered the city’s huge eastern Chaoyang district to work from home starting Thursday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The Chinese approach can be effective at the local level, said Yanzhong Huang, a public health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, pointing to a quick and relatively short lockdown in Shenzhen that appeared to be successful. But in the end, he warned, China “is not going to be able to eradicate the virus.”
Where the political stakes in China make it difficult for Mr Xi to roll back from zero-Covid, Mr Huang said, Taiwan’s government has been adaptable enough to reverse course in a bid to mitigate the inevitable costs of the transition to live with the virus .
“If you don’t want to accept short-term pain, you’ll have to deal with long-term pain,” he said.
Ariel Lee, a 35-year-old graphic designer who lives in the Taipei metropolitan area, a dense metropolis where many of the new local cases were found, said she has been adjusting her mindset about the coronavirus.
“I was very scared of Covid last year,” Ms. Lee said, recalling how she confined her mother to home for more than a week last May because the 63-year-old suffers from a chronic illness. She said that she is not trying to keep her mother at home during this outbreak, noting that the death rate is much lower compared to last year. “I have realized that it is inevitable to live with the virus.”
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