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Taiwan risks international isolation if it resists reopening: Report

Taiwan, Hong Kong, China among last to hold onto zero-COVID policy

Man with face mask walks through Taoyuan City. 

Man with face mask walks through Taoyuan City.  (CNA photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Taiwan’s pandemic success story may be in for a disappointing ending if it continues to close its borders off while the rest of the world resumes pre-pandemic travel.

Prolonged border closures and widespread uncertainty stemming from a lack of planned reopening are hurting tourism, trade, and lifestyle, according to an in-depth report by the Guardian.

International arrivals to Taiwan have dropped by around 90% over the last three years, from 29 million in 2019 to 3.9 million in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, with just 335,000 arriving this year.

Enduring tight border measures have not only hit small businesses hard but have hindered trade and amplified supply chain bottlenecks. Even airmail services to and from some countries have been suspended.

Although the country has maintained a very low number of cases throughout the pandemic, this has come at a great cost to international collaboration in various domains, Chunhuei Chi (紀駿輝) of Oregon State University’s Center for Global Health told the Guardian. He said the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration fears the Kuomintang (KMT) opposition would exploit any outbreak that could occur after reopening and therefore ruin the Democratic Progressive Party's chances in the upcoming local elections.

Another factor has been the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations. The government has said changes will come once 60% of the population has been fully vaccinated, (currently just over a third have been), but the changes remain undefined.

The government’s messaging on its pandemic policy is also muddled.

In September, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) told the Guardian it was not aiming for zero COVID but that it was the direction they were heading. Questioned in the legislature in October about the two opposing approaches, CECC head Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) appeared to say Taiwan was pursuing both policies.

The number of countries holding onto a zero-COVID policy is exceedingly few. Taiwan, along with China and Hong Kong, are among the few places left that are refusing to settle for coexistence with the virus.

Steve Tsang (曾銳生) of the University of London’s SOAS Institute said Taiwan’s government has to accept that we all have to live with COVID now and should give a clear timeline for when the country can reopen.