TAIPEI — Two of the last two governments on earth that adhere to the zero-Covid policy are separated by only 100 miles of water. As they both struggle with Omicron outbreaks, the distance between their approaches to the virus is expanding rapidly.
In China, government authorities have imposed full or partial lockdowns on dozens of cities, home to hundreds of millions of people, in a frenzied attempt to stifle infection multipliers.
In Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing claims just off the coast of China’s Fujian province, the government responded to its Omicron outbreak by phasing out contact tracing, reducing quarantine times and launching a campaign to alleviate concerns. of public opinion on the virus.
Speaking to reporters in Taipei on Tuesday, Taiwanese health minister Chen Shih-chung said the government hoped the Omicron outbreak would eventually turn into a “flu-like situation”.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly rejected comparisons between Covid-19 and the flu, highlighting the dangers of the new virus even as new cases fall. Concluding a visit to Shanghai, where new daily cases have dropped below 5,000 from a peak of more than 27,000 three weeks ago, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Sun Chunlan recently told officials that the city must “quarantine anyone who needs to be put. in quarantine “and prevent a resurgence of the virus.
China reported about 5,500 new cases nationwide on Wednesday, including 51 in Beijing, where officials have imposed localized lockdown measures and travel restrictions in an effort to avoid Shanghai’s fate.
Taiwan posted a daily record of 28,420 new cases on Wednesday, marking a week of new daily counts exceeding 10,000.
China and Taiwan remained with zero-Covid policies for similar reasons, including relatively low vaccination rates among the elderly.
According to government data, just over half of Chinese over 80 had received two doses of the vaccine, according to government data, and fewer than one in five received a booster. Taiwan has been most successful with vaccination, with about 60% of people over 75 receiving booster shots, although nearly 20% remain completely unvaccinated.
In both China and Taiwan, leaders have been reluctant to loosen controls ahead of the political events scheduled for later this year. The Communist Party of China is preparing to hold a national congress in the fall, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to take a third term that has broken the previous one, while Taiwan will hold local elections in November, including major mayoral competitions which are expected to be set the stage for presidential elections in 2024.
The divergence between the Chinese and Taiwanese responses to Omicron is closely followed by public health experts, many of whom have questioned the feasibility of attempting to eradicate a highly transmissible pathogen once it has already taken hold.
In China, the zero-Covid approach has had an immense cost. Food shortages and other missteps in Shanghai, the country’s blocked financial capital, have eroded local confidence in the Communist Party leadership, while the ripple effects of the blockades on manufacturing and consumer spending have produced recession-like conditions.
In this context, Taiwanese health officials have explicitly rejected the idea of following China’s example.
“There are still people asking me to learn from Shanghai. I really can’t figure out what I can learn from them, ”Chen said in mid-April, as the Omicron outbreak in Taiwan was just starting to accelerate.
Instead, Taiwanese officials have gradually loosened restrictions even as cases increase, with the goal of eventually living with the virus like much of the rest of the world without the large death toll recorded by the United States and many others. villages.
Last week, Taiwan ditched its mass contact tracking system, which used a combination of QR codes and text messages to track people’s movements, and reduced the home quarantine for close contacts to three days from 10. Taiwanese health officials on Tuesday announced mandatory home quarantine for arriving travelers would be reduced to seven days from 10 days.
Ho Mei-shang, a virology expert and adjunct researcher at Academic Sinica, Taiwan’s national research institute, said one of the challenges facing the island has been to persuade Taiwanese, most of whom have lived in a largely Covid-free bubble since the start of the pandemic, so as not to overreact to the outbreak.
“We have to do a little bit of readjustment and that’s the hardest part psychologically,” he said.
Taiwanese health officials highlighted the large percentage of infections, above 99.5%, that were mild or asymptomatic, by printing the number in a large font and highlighting it in pink in daily alerts sent via social media.
“The closer the virus is, the calmer we need to be,” Taiwanese President Tsai Ing -wen said after his visit to the island’s Central Epidemic Command Center last week.
Hsin Shih, a nurse at a hospital in the Taiwanese city of Taichung, said fear of the virus was so prevalent during a smaller Alpha variant outbreak in May last year that patients with other conditions avoided seeking treatment. That was not the case with the current outbreak, she said.
“Now, it’s busier than a department store holding an anniversary sale,” he said.
The risks to Taiwan in easing controls are still great, given the number of seniors who remain unvaccinated, public health experts said.
Mr. Chen, the Taiwanese health minister, said he was concerned about slow progress in increasing the vaccination rate for the elderly on Tuesday, when five unvaccinated seniors died from Covid-19.
“The more vaccines that are given, the better our society is protected,” said Chen.
Beijing health authorities on Wednesday said the close contacts faced 10 days in centralized quarantine facilities plus another seven days of home quarantine. The city has also closed some subway stations and ordered the massive eastern district of Chaoyang to work from home starting Thursday, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
The Chinese approach can be effective locally, said Yanzhong Huang, a public health specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, pointing to a quick and relatively short lockdown in Shenzhen that appeared to be successful. But in the end, he warned, China “will not be able to eradicate the virus.”
Where the political stakes in China make it difficult for Mr. Xi to retrace his steps from zero-Covid, Huang said, the Taiwan government has been adaptable enough to reverse course in an effort to mitigate the inevitable costs of transitioning to coexistence. with the virus.
“If you don’t want to accept the pain in the short term, you will have to endure the pain in the long term,” he said.
Ariel Lee, a 35-year-old graphic designer living in the greater Taipei area, a dense metropolis where many of the new local cases have been found, said she has changed her mindset regarding the coronavirus.
“I was really scared of Covid last year,” Ms. Lee said, recalling how she confined her mother at home for more than a week last May because the 63-year-old suffers from a chronic disease. She said she is not trying to keep her mother at home during this outbreak, noting that her death rate is much lower than last year. “I understand that it is inevitable to live with the virus”.
Write to Joyu Wang at email@example.com
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