Taiwan’s Pandemic Control Policy in 2021 — Lockdown, Vaccine Purchase and Distribution, and Testing

Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.

Image credit: 07.16 總統視察「新竹市疫苗施打情形」by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Because of Taiwan’s COVID-19 pandemic control policies, the ruling and opposition parties agree on a national partial lockdown and vaccine distribution. However, they disagree on vaccine purchase and testing policy. This essay argued that there is more consensus than discord and the reason rested on Taiwan’s unique political-economic status. Here are their debates.

After the outbreak in May 2021, the Taiwan CDC (Taiwan Centres for the Disease Control) adopted a partial national lockdown ( this is where business continues while there are social restrictions) to maintain Taiwan’s economic lifeline in foreign trade while reducing infections. Furthermore, Taiwan’s territory is no bigger than the Netherlands, and it is not wise to stop national transportation due to economic reasons. Therefore, unlike the very decisive and drastic measures in some countries (levels, regions, shops, and rotation of approaches), Taiwan’s partial lockdown received approval from all the mayors across Taiwan.

Media, politicians, and public voices also agree with the countries vaccination distribution policy. The first group went to those exposed to high-risk people and those who maintained the government function instead of the more vulnerable older citizens. It is no surprise because Taiwan has its political statism tradition. Plus, politicians, media, celebrities, and the wealthy agree with this distribution policy because they are the priority to get protection. Plus, according to the experience of many other East Asian countries, senior citizens might not want to get vaccinated, slowing down the vaccination pace.

Here are two issues where the DPP and KMT split along party lines: vaccine purchase and testing policy. DPP supporters claim that the CDC has tried its best to buy different vaccines, including COVAX (4.76 million doses), Moderna (5.05 million), AstraZeneca (100 million), and domestically made vaccine, United Biomedical (50 million), and Medigen Vaccine (50 million). However, the Taiwan CDC had already signed deals early in February 2021, and the pace of delivery has been appropriate since pandemic control in Taiwan was good before May 19th, 2021. AZ vaccine arrived in Taiwan on March 3rd, 2021. And until the May outbreak, there has been less than 0.4% of Taiwanese vaccinated. Thus, the records above show that Taiwan CDC’s vaccine purchase is reasonable and proper. The accusations concerning the CDC’s reluctance in purchasing vaccines is thus misleading. Moreover, accusers are ignoring the fact of Taiwan’s successful pandemic control from 2020 to 2021 and the overwhelming reluctance of vaccination in early 2021. If the pandemic was not lethal, who and why needs an antidote?

On the other hand, after a discouraging year, the KMT finally saw the political turning point. Supporters of the KMT emphasized the failed February deal of 30000000 doses of the German BNT vaccine. The distribution rights of the German BNT vaccine in Asia went to Shanghai Fosun Pharma. Thus, gaining the German BNT vaccine would result in Taiwan paying the political price regardless. Therefore, the KMT has charged the DPP of using ideological factors to deter anything related to China.

Furthermore, the KMT implied that the Taiwan CDC choosing to buy the domestically made vaccines and delaying all other imported ones is corrupt. The conspiracy theory of the DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, and the pharmaceutical industrial complex has become a prevalent issue on talk shows. Hence, the KMT has somewhat enjoyed the political capital generated, perhaps not from this implausible story but from the fear, anger, and frustration of the Taiwanese people under lockdown.

The DPP and KMT also disagree with the testing policies. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the KMT has called for testing expansion to find out the infection’s source. The KMT also supports free testing, airport testing, and private testing—all in all, these are mechanisms to locate the source of infections in Taiwan and to discredit the DPP’s success. Furthermore, the Taiwan CDC has adopted a conservative attitude toward testing due to protecting their medical resources. This reason is legitimate because Taiwanese people are trained to be over-sensitive toward the COVID-19. For the past 1.5 years, the Taiwanese pandemic control policy has relied on the government’s continuous warning and persuasion to exaggerate the danger and possibility of mass infection, which never happened and is not happening either, compared to most countries in the world. Thus, the Taiwan CDC’s strategy of political communication and no testing is a double-edged sword. It has saved a lot of money, brought confidence, and helped people feel safe. Still, it would create unnecessary panic if there was any level of an outbreak, which we witnessed from May until July.

In summary, I have argued that the Taiwan CDC is correct in its vaccine purchase and testing policy between their debates. First, I suggested that it is not CDC’s choice to buy vaccines earlier. Back in 2020, most countries were heavily damaged by the pandemic, and the vaccine’s development was in the early stage. Indeed, the most effective vaccines came to the market only in the 2021 Spring. Moreover, the Taiwanese situation was not considered urgent. Countries who had the vaccine must protect their people first and, if possible, help the countries with hundreds of thousands of casualties everyday but not in Taiwan. Second, I have suggested that the CDC is right about not launching a massive testing scale because Taiwan does not have enough vaccines yet, and a full lockdown brought by mass testing would bring economic disaster. With the infection under control, Taiwan can continue its very fragile exporting industry. Third, CDC is right about investing heavily in the domestically made vaccine. Although still paying hefty patent fees to the US, Taiwan can secure its vaccine to save lives. After all, with 98% of energy and 65% of the food by import, Taiwanese has no choice but to keep business open and walk a thin line to keep their people’s health under this pandemic of the Century.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, a non-resident fellow of the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham in UK, Chairperson of the Department of International Affairs, Graduate Program of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. This article is part of special issue on the U.S.-Taiwan relations.

This article was published as part of a special issue on Taiwan’s Covid-19 Spike. You can find all articles in the special issue here.

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