My husband and I waited tremblingly under the neon lights of the arrivals hall of Taiwan’s main international airport, hoping we could get past the final pandemic hurdle after an epic month-long trip since the advent of COVID-19. Meeting family for the first time.
All 68 passengers arriving on flight SQ878 from Singapore were assigned a blue sticker with a number prominently displayed on our arms.
It matched the tube assigned to us for the nasal swab, the deeper COVID PCR test we received immediately after disembarking, which would determine our fate. A positive result would mean quarantine in a government facility, and a negative result would allow us to quarantine in the comfort of our homes in Taipei.
I’m number 46, and in the haze of jet lag, it feels like a scene from a game of benevolent squid.
Even in their white and red protective suits, Taiwanese health officials were friendly and welcoming, but when they suddenly started walking around with clipboards, staring intently at everyone’s arms, I felt a burst of nervousness .
We tested negative before departure, but will we catch Covid-19 on the plane?
A woman sitting a few rows to the right is approached by a hazmat suit and carefully led behind a white screen. Not like the brutal eliminations seen in Squid Game, but still ominous.
Then a loud voice sounded – “Thank you for your cooperation. You can continue now,” said a voice in English and Chinese. The other 67 of us sighed in relief and flocked to immigration desks, baggage claim and quarantine taxis, our suitcases, clothes and soles heavily sprayed with disinfectant.
Taiwan, along with mainland China and Hong Kong, is one of the only remaining outposts in the world requiring quarantines for all international arrivals.
In the first two years of the pandemic, its strategy of closing the border to everyone except citizens and permanent residents, even then requiring a strict 14-day quarantine for all arrivals, saved thousands until a vaccine was developed. life and economic decentralization.
However, the proliferation of highly contagious omicron variants across the globe makes this “zero COVID” policy unsustainable.
While China has redoubled its efforts, placing barricades on entire streets of Shanghai and confining people to their own homes — sometimes even locking them in — Taiwan is embracing this new reality and slowly reopening , and grapple with how to safely move from suppressing to mitigating the virus.
With omicron sweeping the country and dwarfing incoming cases, there’s no point in maintaining border isolation, experts say – an argument acknowledged on Friday by Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shizhong, who said the country would begin gradually loosening border controls in June.
‘CECC cares about you’
Earlier this month, the quarantine period had been reduced from 14 days to seven days, and Mr. Chen said Taiwan had reached a point where the domestic infection risk was the same or higher than the risk from outside.
On the day we arrived, there were only 28 cases at the airport, compared to 57,188 in the local community. Confirmed domestic infections stood at 94,808 on Friday, with 47 overseas arrivals.
One of the arguments for reducing or eliminating border quarantine is that it consumes precious resources that could be used elsewhere.
When we got two quick home tests at the airport, I felt guilty knowing that people were queuing for hours outside the pharmacy in Taipei in case supplies were running out. Travellers must still be tested on the seventh day of isolation and report the results to the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) or face fines of up to £4,000.
During these 7 days we were assigned a CECC liaison officer – the helpful Mr Chen – who advised on the rules and arranged for a special collection and disposal of our household waste.
Every day at 10:20 a.m. we get a text message asking us to report if we have symptoms, signed with the charming phrase: “CECC cares about you.”
It’s an efficient system that functions like clockwork, but Taiwan has other priorities now.
In reopening, it is now following the path of regional neighbors South Korea and Singapore, which have lifted quarantines for fully vaccinated travelers over the past few months as they try to learn to live with the virus.
Singapore-based Professor Paul Tambia, President of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said: “At this stage of the pandemic, when the virus is less virulent and more transmissible, the risk-to-benefit ratio of isolation has changed significantly. “
“In other words, the benefits of retaining isolation are small compared to the costs. Those costs include indirect costs that could have an impact on health care well beyond COVID,” he said.
“Diverting resources to maintaining and enforcing quarantines is not sustainable in Singapore, and I doubt it will be for long in Taiwan. These resources are best used to ensure that vulnerable members of the local population are properly diagnosed and treated. “
Chi Chunhui, director of Oregon State University’s Center for Global Health and a former policy advisor to Taiwan’s National Health Insurance Administration, agrees that while Taiwan made the right decision in the face of the Omicron wave, it needs to ramp up its quarantine policy to speed.
“It is contradictory to require that people be quarantined at the border longer than those infected at home,” he said. “Since this spring, Taiwan has lost its international edge as much of the world has been opened up to tourists.”
He believes that distinguishing between vaccinated and unvaccinated is an important public health message. In particular, persuading the unvaccinated 20% of people over 75 to accept the benefits of jabs.
Taiwan, like mainland China, Hong Kong and some Pacific nations, faces a vaccine hesitancy unique to countries following a zero-COVID policy — when vulnerable older adults think there is no chance of infection at home , they calculated that the risk of vaccine side effects would be higher.
But he said that while the government was ill-prepared for a sudden surge, it was adapting quickly to the new reality.
“I’m amazed how they keep changing their procedures,” Mr Chi said. “They realize that in the face of Omicron, Taiwan can no longer practice zero COVID.”
Chia Wang, an aerosol scientist and director of the Center for Aerosol Science at National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan, urged the government to update its advice that airborne transmission is the main route of the virus, emphasizing preventive measures.
“People should be more concerned about air cleanliness because they’re already concerned enough about cleaning surfaces or washing their hands, but [this] is a critical piece missing,” she said, advising indoor space ventilation and HEPA filters.
“This is one of the most important keys to mitigating the epidemic in Taiwan,” she said.
Taiwan is undergoing a massive mindset shift, from virus-free status as one of the world’s only safe havens to a disturbing vertical trajectory of infection, albeit largely mild or asymptomatic.
Traveling between Taiwan and the UK is like entering a parallel universe. It’s spiritually liberating to see people go on with their lives without fear of infection or stigma.
But Taiwan’s caution and acknowledgment that the outbreak is far from over has and will continue to save many lives. As we move to the next stage, it somehow feels like East and West can meet in the middle.