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Taiwan needs roadmap out of COVID restrictions

It’s time to drop obsession with daily infection numbers and zero-COVID approach

Taiwan needs roadmap out of COVID restrictions

(Wikimedia Commons photo)

KAOHSIUNG (Taiwan News) — At the beginning of this week, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced that foreign spouses and children of Taiwan nationals can now apply for entry into the country.

This is absolutely the right decision and one that is long overdue. COVID-19 should never have been a reason for the state to split up families in this way.

While it's good news this rule has been changed, the move has once more shone a light on Taiwan’s broader handling of the pandemic. It is to be hoped this will preempt a fundamental rethink of the entire policy.

It is important to stress at this juncture that, in the early days of the pandemic, Taiwan’s approach was absolutely right and has been held up as a model by much of the rest of the world.

Closing borders early in 2020 and again in May this year saved many lives, and it absolutely made sense to implement lockdowns to minimize further spread. However, the situation has changed, and it's time for Taiwan’s approach to the pandemic to evolve.

It is now clear beyond any reasonable doubt the way out of this pandemic is vaccines. That is the only way the impact of the virus on a population can be managed, and it is the only route back to normality.

Despite much criticism, the rollout of vaccines across Taiwan has been successful despite facing a number of unique challenges and roadblocks thanks to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). From a standing start in May, the Taiwan authorities have managed to get 48.97% of people vaccinated with a first dose while 5% of older and more vulnerable people have already received two doses.

Vaccine evolution

The debate about how effective COVID vaccines are after a single dose is still raging. Even so, AstraZeneca claims its vaccine provides 87% protection against hospitalization or death from the Delta variant after a single dose.

Meanwhile, a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may offer as much as 78% and 96% protection, respectively, against hospitalization from Delta.

The key distinction to make here is between the effectiveness of a vaccine against catching COVID-19 at all or against getting seriously ill and dying from it. This is the fundamental decision the Taiwanese government has to make now.

Does Taiwan want to continue to pursue a zero-COVID policy and try to stamp the virus out entirely or does it want to use vaccines and other techniques, such as testing, to manage and control the virus and begin to move life back to normal?

The blunt reality is this disease is not going to go away, and a zero-COVID policy is not a viable long-term strategy. That’s why, with vaccination rates growing all the time, it is the right moment for the authorities to begin plotting a roadmap to normality.

To see the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, Taiwan just has to look to those countries whose vaccine programs are more advanced than our own.

In the U.K., which has been hit hard by COVID-19 over the past 18 months, at the time of writing, 89.2% of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine (primarily AZ and Pfizer) and 81.4% have received two doses. The U.K. has had no domestic COVID-19 restrictions in place since July 19 and is only quarantining arrivals from a few countries with especially high rates of COVID.

Going nowhere

The effectiveness of these vaccines can be seen in the fact that while positive tests have fluctuated since July 19, the hospitalization and death rates have remained consistently far below where they were before vaccinations began. Indeed, the biggest concern in the U.K. is whether the efficacy of the vaccines might wane over time, which is why the roll-out of a third dose is expected to start soon.

But there is a general acceptance now that, much like the flu, COVID-19 is an illness that we have to manage and live with rather than try to stamp out. Plenty of other countries have reached the same conclusion, and only a handful (typically those with low vaccine rates) are still pursuing a zero-COVID strategy.

It is time for Taiwan to decide when, not if, it is going to switch to a similar approach.

The first step is to decide at what point in its vaccine program it is going to start to relax domestic restrictions. The authorities might decide that this is after all vulnerable groups have been double-vaccinated; after a certain percentage of the population as a whole has been double-jabbed; or simply when everyone who wants it has been offered a single jab and is therefore largely protected from serious symptoms.

All of these options are credible, so it is one for the medical experts in the CECC to decide. The key thing is that there needs to be clarity and advance notice rather than a snap decision that takes everyone by surprise.

Next, it is time to reassess border controls and open Taiwan up for business once more. This could mean allowing travelers from countries with low COVID-rates or high vaccination rates to enter without quarantining.

Roadmap to normality

Perhaps the best option would be for Taiwan to start recognizing approved vaccines administered in other countries and allow un-quarantined entry (with testing) to those who have already been double-jabbed. This would allow a significant number of business travelers and those from democratic allies to enter immediately, and the number will grow all the time.

It is important to note that this will inevitably see cases arrive from overseas, which brings us to the final step.

Taiwan's obsession with daily case numbers has to end. There was a time when this data served a purpose, but it is now counter-productive and has the media and the public focusing on achieving zero-COVID, which is simply not sustainable in the long run.

Taiwan needs to announce a cut-off point when this data will stop being regularly released. It should be replaced by a renewed focus on the vaccination rate, hospitalization rate, death rate, and progress towards the agreed-upon targets for fully reopening society.

This needs to be done soon. Switching the narrative to driving up the vaccination rate and showing how it's keeping serious illness and death at bay has to be the next stage if the country is going to return to normality.

The benefits of reopening Taiwan are many. It will be a huge boost to businesses nationwide and the tourism sector especially. There is a humanitarian case too, with many families still separated despite this week’s announcement.

But above all, it will allow life to return to normal for everyone, while a zero-COVID policy will drag this pandemic out for far longer than is necessary.