Life in the Time of COVID: Taiwan Edition

June 11, 2021

Taiwan COVID level 3 alert

For the past year and a half, I’ve been extremely grateful to live here. It has been a place largely free of the dangers of COVID-19, a safe bubble, thanks to Taiwan’s rapid response to the initial outbreak, careful contact tracing and strict border control and quarantine enforcement. Taiwan’s response was “among the best“. But over the past month we’ve watched our case numbers steadily climb as outbreaks in and around Taipei have spiralled. All because of a simple decision to lessen the length of mandatory quarantine for pilots to three days (I mean, come on government, we all could have told you that was a bad idea).

Early Beginnings

Last Chinese New Year, at the end of January in 2020, Luke and I traveled to Japan for vacation. We spent several days each in Tokyo and Osaka, seeing the sights, eating the most amazing food, going to Universal Studios. It was winter, freezing, and I was underdressed and sick the entire time (not with COVID, but some other nasty school-caught cold that I just couldn’t shake). There was one day I couldn’t take anymore traipsing and opted to lay in our tiny Tokyo hostel room, essentially just a bed, watching The Terminal while Luke went galavanting about the city. We both had a blast.

Luke in Japan COVID

It was while we were there that news about COVID-19 (and COVID itself) really began spreading. We were in Tokyo when their first case was reported, and in Osaka for their first case. Overnight, it seemed, it became impossible to find masks at the convenience stores. Luckily we had brought some with us. We enjoyed the rest of our vacation regardless. I still daydream about that day at Universal Studios, heaven on earth. Yet even there, at the front of the line for each ride, they were scanning temperatures and spraying disinfectant, telling us to remove our masks only for the duration of the ride, and then to immediately place them back on.

Universal Studios Osaka Japan
The beautiful, lovely Universal Studios in Osaka, Japan

We arrived in Kaohsiung on Feb 1st and were there for a few days before heading back to Keelung. The infamous Princess Diamond had docked in Keelung on the 31st, and passengers even disembarked to go sightseeing just days before we returned. The government was effective in its follow up with contact tracing and quarantine procedures. By the end of the month community spread in Japan had become serious, and in early March it had categorized the epidemic as a state of historic emergency. It seemed to us that we had dodged all the bullets.

Then & Now

This time last year, I was still teaching. We had settled into routines of checking temperatures, using disinfectant, wearing masks at all times, stopping by the pharmacy each week to get our allotment of masks. Public school closures and other community measure had helped to prevent local transmissions. People stayed at home more, although restaurants and businesses remained open. By remaining cautious and vigilant, life was able to go on largely as normal. Eventually the vast bulk of our cases dwindled down into a steady trickle of imported cases.

Masks COVID Taiwan
In line outside the pharmacy, 20 minutes before opening.
masks COVID Taiwan
The number of mask portions left (hence the line).

We adapted to this new normal – temperature check points at train stations and at inter-city bus journeys, filling out forms with contact tracing information at popular attractions, hand-sanitizing whenever entering an establishment (see my post on mask-wearing from September, Mask Culture: Taiwan vs. America). Schools, businesses and events went on as before, with some extra precautions. I felt safe and reassured every time I saw cleaning staff disinfecting escalator hand rails or MRT handles. We went to movies, bars, baseball games and even on small getaways with little fear of contracting the virus. Thus life went on.

The government was rolling out vaccines in April, and had just begun allowing citizens to access self-paid vaccines when the outbreak happened and demand exploded. May 15 saw our safe bubble turned on its head with almost 200 locally spread cases. Now we’re one month into Level 3 alert – a partial lockdown, with multiple extensions and little idea as to when the end is in sight.

In a place that I had so recently been proud of for its handling of COVID, the ugly side of human nature is rearing its head. There are several reports about discriminatory treatment of migrant workers surfacing, including their being marched to and from work, locked in their dormitories, ordered to stay at home, and banned from switching employers. The Taiwan Association for Human Rights is pushing back to see these policies changed (to support their efforts, donations are accepted through their website).

Party politics have become increasingly heated over how to handle vaccine acquisition, the KMT urging acceptance of vaccines from China while the DPP is committed to buying them directly from manufacturers. Taiwan has been struggling to purchase enough vaccines, and while vaccines are being manufactured locally, they still need to complete phase 3 of trials.

The welcoming of a vaccine donation from Japan, as well as vaccines from the US, seem to have touched some nerves (for a more in-depth analysis, this Vice article by Clarissa Wei does a fantastic job explaining the complex geopolitical issues around obtaining vaccines). In a telling (and shocking) twitter blunder, the KMT party called Roy Ngerng, writer and social activist, a white supremacist. They have since deleted the tweet and issued a formal apology.

Dealing With It

For the first couple of weeks of Level 3 I grappled with waves of anger at the failures of the western world, and my own country in particular, at the players who I felt were distinctly to blame for our current situation in Taiwan.

I was angry at the American government’s complete unpreparedness in the first place. At the CDC for turning loose infected Americans from the Costa Luminosa cruise ship in the Atlanta airport last march – over a month after the first case had appeared in the States, by which time protocol should have been well-established. At the Trump administration’s spread of misinformation and mixed messages. At the politicization of a global threat, turning COVID-19 prevention measures into a weird sort of turf war and rendering the good efforts of many futile. At people refusing to wear masks, endangering others. At easing up on restrictions too soon, over and over again, even as dangerous new variants are on the rise and spreading. At the failure to track new strains at all. At the monopolization of resources (vaccines) while those new strains were set loose around the world. (I could go on, but I’ll stop there.) Meanwhile in the first two months of the pandemic, Taiwan had already done five pages of things right.

But now I’m realizing just how human it all is. How fragile it was all along. How we’re all in the same leaky boat.

This weekend is supposed to be a time of festive celebration: Dragon Boat Festival. Calls have been made for the government to cancel the holiday and President Tsai Ing-wen has tweeted a message of caution, but we’ll see what happens! Hopefully we don’t have a 4th of July situation on our hands.

In Taiwan it feels like we’re right where much of the world was a year ago, at the beginning of our messy, chaotic COVID lockdown journey. Taiwan’s food and beverage industry has been hard hit, stores are going out of business, everyone who can is working from home and students are learning remotely. Everywhere you go you have to scan a QR code and send a text documenting your visit. Now there’s more strict enforcement of when you can go to the grocery store, and there’s literally nothing to do. Even parks and outdoor recreation areas have been closed to the public. I’m already itching for all of those things I’m not supposed to do. Luke’s birthday is next week… I just want to go and buy him a present. Maybe I’ll start learning the Pink Panther theme song on the saxophone like the guy on This American Life.

Staying home COVID Taiwan 2021
Guess I’ll be staying home.

When you do think we’ll all be out of the woods on this thing finally? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading 🙂


What are your thoughts?