With eye on China’s zero-Covid chaos, Taiwan seizes chance to open up

The tables at his diner in the Taiwanese capital are buzzing with customers, waiters bustle with dishes of squid soup and rice noodles, and talk and laughter fills the air.

Chen considers himself lucky. Taiwan is allowing restaurants like his to remain open despite a wave of Covid infections — hitting more than 60,000 cases on Thursday alone — sweeping through the island.

Things might have been so different. Until recently the island had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s business was shut for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, dealing a blow to his employees — and his bottom line — that left him “heartbroken.”

“We were lucky to have survived and moved on from it,” he said.

But since then, the Taiwanese government has had a profound rethink. What was until recently one of the world’s last zero-Covid holdouts has now switched its mindset to living with the virus — prompted by the realization that even the toughest contact-tracing and quarantine regimes are no match for the highly transmissible Omicron variant, as demonstrated by the chaos playing out across the Taiwan Strait in China

For Chen, it’s a welcome shift that has ensured his business can continue relatively unaffected by the outbreak. While he remains concerned about the virus, he believes the best approach is to learn from other east Asian economies — such as Singapore — that have managed to navigate similar changes in mindset.

“I think we need to overcome our fears, and tread carefully step by step,” he said.

Oscar Chen, who owns the Liang Xi Hao restaurant in central Taipei.

A tale of two cities

Taiwan’s reopening is in stark contrast to Shanghai. There, in a desperate effort to cling to its zero-Covid ideals, China is resorting to ever more stringent measures in an attempt to rein in an Omicron outbreak that has infected hundreds of thousands of people.

Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, where there is a sizeable Taiwanese community, have been locked down for weeks.

Chaotic scenes of angry confrontations between Shanghai residents and police officers trying to force people into quarantine have received widespread coverage in Taiwanese media, helping to sway public opinion on the island by offering a pointed reminder of the sacrifices required by zero-Covid policies.

It’s a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.

“It is really tough for him. We don’t discuss it on the political front, but my brother has been under quarantine for 45 days without being able to leave his home. At least he can still order takeaways — in some neighborhoods people can’t and they have to wait for the government to send supplies.”

Taiwan’s reopening furthers isolates China as perhaps the last major economy in the world to still be following a zero-Covid policy. Even Hong Kong, which had long clinged to the model in an effort to reopen its borders with the Chinese mainland, has been loosening its restrictions after a recent Omicron-driven wave sent its death rate per capita rocketing at one point to the highest in Asia.
That sense of increasing isolation is likely only to add to the backlash against the policy in Shanghai, and other locked down Chinese cities, where frustration is growing at what seems like a never-ending fight. Even as the policy puts the brakes on the country’s economy, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has scotched any suggestion of a let-up, pledging to “unswervingly” double down.
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in China for a few years, said it was only natural for Taiwan to open up as vaccination rates went up.

Lessons from Shanghai

Taiwan’s move to reopen is driven in part by a desire to avoid exactly the sort of scenes playing out in Shanghai — described to reporters last week by Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang as “cruel” and not a model for Taiwan to follow.

It is also reflects a recognition that the dawn of Omicron variant left zero-Covid economies with a choice: either double down like China on ever more stringent measures or use the opportunity afforded by high vaccination rates to open up.

Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing Taiwan would focus on ensuring normal lives for its residents as much as possible, rather than aiming for zero infections.

Ironically, it is the freedom the island enjoyed during its long period of zero-Covid that made that choice inevitable, said Chen Chien-jen, who served as Taiwan’s vice president between 2016 and 2020.

“In the last two years, people enjoyed a very free life here — they lived normally and went to work normally. So we don’t like city lockdowns or mass testing, and we don’t think it is useful to control the spread of the virus,” Chen said.

Instead, said Chen, who is now an epidemiologist at Academia Sinica, the milder variant had presented an opportunity as it has “a very high infectivity, but quite low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. To date, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population are fully vaccinated with two shots, according to University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.

“(Taiwanese people) saw the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou, and Beijing,…

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