KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — Domination of the news cycle by the COVID-19 outbreak is beginning to get a little irksome, especially for those of us who have spent the last couple of years following similar narratives while they played out in the U.S., U.K., or wherever we happen to herald from.
As a Brit, I am currently looking enviously at the state of play back home, where all COVID restrictions have now been lifted, and life has very much returned to normal.
That’s not to say that I envy the dark days that Britain went through at the height of the pandemic. The number of deaths due to COVID dwarf what we have seen here, and they undeniably made unforced errors at the beginning of the pandemic that were not replicated here.
However, and this is not a view shared by everyone, what they have got right is finding the right moment to lift the damaging societal restrictions and begin to learn to live with a virus that is going to be with us in one form or another for many years to come.
Here in Taiwan, we are still edging towards this point pretty slowly. What is interesting at this stage is how cities in Taiwan are approaching the pandemic differently.
In Kaohsiung, the DPP-led city council has taken steps not seen in Taipei or elsewhere. We have set up PCR testing stations where people can get free PCR tests safely without leaving their cars.
In Taipei, there have been reports of people having to line up and even fighting to get tests. If people test positive at home there, they have to call a COVID-taxi to get a PCR test. These are over-subscribed, so often people struggle to get one.
This week, to help lower the spread, Kaohsiung announced that some students will be taught online one week before their exams (May 16-20) and after-school classes will also revert to online teaching for the same week.
We have also started handing out care packs to confirmed positive cases. These include food and other essential supplies, to remove the risk of positive cases having to go into public areas to shop for provisions.
Moves like these have proved broadly popular with people here, although there has been some criticism, predictably along party lines. The measures also appear to be reducing the spread of the virus more than in Taipei.
Interestingly, this city-by-city split mirrors the handling of COVID-19 in the U.K. too. Health policy is a devolved issue there, which means that it was the Scottish and Welsh regional parliaments that set the rules in their respective areas rather than the national government in Westminster, which only has a remit over England.
There was plenty of policy divergence between England, Scotland, and Wales, and this undeniably led to both confusion and resentment. While there were some differences in COVID case numbers in the short term, it was also the case that in the long-run, COVID case numbers ended up broadly the same regardless of regional policy differences.
This is a lesson for the Taiwanese authorities and people to learn from.
The fact is, the Omicron variant is not nearly as scary or damaging as the variants that came before. The proof of this can be seen in the U.K. and other countries that have now opened up completely and, while seeing a spike in case numbers, have seen hospitalisation and death rates remain very low.
It can also be seen here in Taiwan, where rising cases are not being followed by major spikes in people dying or becoming seriously ill.
Taiwan is in a good place now to deal with Omicron. Here, the majority of the population has been vaccinated using jabs that are proven to be effective. We are also entering the warm summer months where respiratory diseases have less impact.
All we are lacking now is the natural immunity that comes with the virus spreading through the population. However, that is starting to happen and with minimal negative effects.
The differing regional COVID policies in Taiwan are unlikely to change the long-term impact that this wave of the Omicron variant is having, regardless of how popular or effective they seem now.
Taiwan should look to the lessons from countries like the U.K., lift restrictions and learn to live with COVID-19. It might seem like a tough decision, but it is the right one, and it means that when Taiwan reflects on the COVID-19 pandemic in years to come, it will be able to say with some degree of confidence that it got things right, both at the start of the pandemic and at the end.