Moving past Taiwan’s Zero-Tolerance Approach

For the second time in less than two years, Taiwan has turned the clock back on Covid-19. Its recent outbreak, which started in May, has largely been brought under control. Rigorous contact tracing, widespread compliance with mask wearing, and strict quarantine measures have allowed Taiwan’s residents to return to schools and restaurants and participate in public gatherings. Taiwan appears to have avoided the sustained spikes in caseloads taking place across many countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Despite dropping many domestic restrictions, Taiwan’s strict entry ban for foreign travelers remains in place. Mindful that the recent outbreak took place after a lapse in quarantine requirements, as well as of the recent conflagration of Delta variant cases around the world, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) has made clear there are no plans to drop border restrictions anytime soon. Foreign workers, family reunions, and Taiwan’s already diminished tourism market are paying the price, all of this compounded by a growing sense of uncertainty moving forward.

For now, the restrictions make sense. Compared to other advanced countries, Taiwan’s vaccination rate remains low. Less than 40 percent of the population has received a first dose and less than 4 percent is fully vaccinated. The speed of vaccinations has been haphazard, following delays in vaccine deliveries, alleged interference by China over purchase orders, and disinformation about the efficacy rate of several brands of vaccines. With less than a week’s supply of vaccines on hand, Taiwan’s stockpile continues to teeter dangerously close to the brink of exhaustion.

The highly contagious Delta variant remains another looming matter. Loose home quarantine requirements led one Taiwanese citizen coming home from Peru to quickly infect 11 others near her residence in Pingtung County. The cluster only came under control after mass testing, vaccinations, and a close-to-full lockdown in surrounding areas. The scare prompted Taiwan’s government to remove the home quarantine option, requiring returnees to instead quarantine at a designated hotel or government facility with stricter monitoring protocols.

Health officials are also closely examining resurgences led by the Delta variant around the world, particularly in countries that are highly vaccinated. In Israel, where close to 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, cases have increased significantly since May, and several virus restrictions have been reintroduced. States across the United States have brought back mask mandates for indoor spaces to varying degrees of compliance. Several European countries have instituted new travel restrictions after initially opening their borders to business and tourism.

All these considerations have made it difficult and politically fraught to discuss potential border reopenings in Taiwan, particularly at a time when the Tsai administration is under criticism for its slow initial vaccine rollout. In one indication of pandemic-induced political shifts, pollsters point out that support for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has fallen more than 10 percent since the May outbreak. Meanwhile, the opposition Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has continued to capitalize on pandemic politics, filing a lawsuit to block introduction of Taiwan’s first domestically produced vaccine, while pressuring the government to accept Chinese-sold doses.

Yet there is a need for Taiwan to lay out a clear framework moving forward. As a country dependent on foreign trade and international ties, Taiwan’s borders cannot be closed in perpetuity. While political questions of how to manage increased caseloads that would inevitably arise from border openings are understandable, they should not detract away from rational and pragmatic discussions about how such measures would be undertaken. And as a democracy, there is a need for the country to bring such plans into the public domain.

Taiwan would do well to study the example of New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on August 12 that New Zealand would reopen borders after its vaccine rollout is completed at the end of the year, with quarantine requirements to vary based on vaccination status and where the travel originated. Vaccinated travelers from low-risk countries will not have to isolate; unvaccinated travelers or travelers from high-risk countries will need to isolate for 14 days in a military-run facility. In the meantime, the country is planning to run trial programs to better understand and mitigate potential risks.

New Zealand’s strategy is clear and concise. It focuses on minimizing potential exposure from abroad, even in an open border setting, allowing health authorities ample opportunities to identify and manage potential cases as they appear. While the approach is dependent on high vaccination rates, as well as careful and precise implementation, there is every expectation that New Zealand—which has seen only 26 deaths from the outset of the pandemic—will be successful.

Like New Zealand, Taiwan’s CECC should consider what a future border reopening would look like, taking into account projected domestic vaccination rates, risks posed by individual countries of origin, as well as Taiwan’s ability to handle potential outbreaks. Particularly as Taiwan is on track to fully vaccinate 60 percent of its population by the end of the year, this will enable students, businesses, and other travelers to plan ahead with greater clarity and certainty.

Over the past 20 months, Taiwan has been a stellar example of Covid management. It has implemented science-based protocols that have minimized imported cases and reduced community spread, showcasing its strengths as a free and open democracy. With the international community gradually moving toward reopened borders and reduced travel restrictions, it is time for Taiwan to carefully examine its own zero-tolerance approach using the same sophistication and pragmaticism that has served it so well in months past.

Vincent Chao is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Vincent Chao

Vincent Chao

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Asia Program and China Power Project