Taiwan’s COVID response was the envy of the world. Now it’s fighting its biggest outbreak

May 17, 2021, 9:40 AM UTC

Taiwan is grappling with a spike in COVID-19 cases after keeping the coronavirus largely at bay for the past year.

“We contained the coronavirus in the past one year, but now infections come one after another with a more contagious mutant virus spreading faster,” Premier Su Tseng-chang said Saturday. Some of the cases in the current outbreak are connected to the U.K. variant.

On Monday, the self-governing island reported 333 new cases—a new daily record for the island, following 207 cases on Sunday and 180 new infections Saturday. Taiwan’s accumulated case numbers have now jumped to 2,015, sparking panic in supermarkets and among stocks on the island that weeks ago was all but COVID-free.

How it began

Taiwan—an island of 23 million people—implemented strict border control measures as soon as mainland China reported the emergence of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019. The government in Taipei banned all flights to and from China in late January 2020 and all nonresident foreign arrivals two months later. It has only gradually eased exceptions for returning nationals and business trips.

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Taiwan is still closed to foreign tourists, but authorities can trace the current community outbreak to a COVID cluster initially contained within Taiwan’s quarantine hotels.

On April 20, two pilots off a cargo flight for Taiwan’s flag carrier, China Airlines, tested positive for COVID-19 while quarantining in a Novotel. Nine more pilots soon tested positive, too. Quarantine for pilots is only three days long, so several of the nine additional pilots had visited bars and restaurants before testing positive, spreading the outbreak to the general community.

The response

On Saturday, the government placed the capital, Taipei, and its surrounding metropolis, New Taipei City, on level-three alert. Cinemas, libraries, and sports centers will be closed until May 28. Indoor gatherings are limited to groups of five, while outdoor groups are capped at 10, and mask-wearing is mandatory.

On Monday, Taipei implemented even stricter measures and closed all schools for two weeks and also banned the arrival of all foreign nationals without residency. Taiwan’s highest response level of four calls for a complete lockdown, with mandatory stay-at-home orders, and will be implemented if daily case numbers exceed 100 for two weeks.

News of the first major community outbreak since last year sparked panic buying in some cities. Consumers rushed to stock up on toilet paper and instant noodles.

The outbreak also prompted a surge in vaccine appointments, with the island administering a record 16,180 jabs last Wednesday. Like many other Asian governments that had initial success in curtailing the virus, Taipei has struggled to persuade its citizens to get vaccinated. Taiwan received 117,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in March, but as of Thursday, only 0.55% of the population had received their first dose.

Taiwan’s stock market already reflects investor fears that the current outbreak could sprawl into widespread contagion.

As of Monday, Taiwan’s benchmark Taiex index is down 11% from seven days before. It experienced its biggest intraday slide since 1969 last Wednesday, dropping 8.5%. The plunge might have been due in part to a global rout on tech stocks, as the semiconductor shortage continues to plague makers of electronics and autos.

The world’s largest contract chip manufacturer, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), has a 30% weighting in the Taiex, and shares in the chipmaker sank 1.9% last Wednesday. A level-four outbreak in TSMC’s home city could pile pressure on already strained semiconductor supply lines.

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