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.
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.
A tale of two cities
Many neighborhoods in Shanghai, where there is a sizeable Taiwanese community, have been locked down for weeks.
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.”
Lessons from Shanghai
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,…