The tables at his restaurant in the Taiwanese capital are teeming with customers, waiters are busy with dishes of calamari soup and rice noodles, and conversations and laughter fill 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 – that swept the island.
Things could have been so different. Until recently, the island had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the virus: Chen’s business was shut down for more than two months during the last major outbreak in May 2021, dealing a blow to its employees – and to his results – which left him “heartbroken.”
“We were lucky to have survived and made it through,” he said.
For Chen, it’s a welcome change that has allowed his business to continue to be relatively unaffected by the outbreak. While he remains concerned about the virus, he thinks the best approach is to learn from other East Asian economies – like Singapore – that have successfully coped with similar mindset shifts.
“I think we have to overcome our fears and move forward carefully step by step,” he said.
A tale of two cities
Many areas of Shanghai, where a large Taiwanese community lives, have been confined for weeks.
It’s a contrast not lost on Chen, whose brother lives in Shanghai.
“It’s really hard for him. We don’t talk about it politically, but my brother has been in quarantine for 45 days without being able to leave his house. At least he can still order takeout – in some neighborhoods people cannot and they have to wait for the government to send supplies.”
Lessons from Shanghai
It also reflects the recognition that the dawn of the Omicron variant has left zero-Covid economies a choice: either double down like China on ever-tighter measures, or use the opportunity presented by high vaccination rates to to open.
Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen chose the latter, announcing that Taiwan would focus as much as possible on ensuring a normal life for its people, rather than the goal of zero infections.
Ironically, it was 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.
“For the past two years, people have had a very free life here – they lived normally and went to work normally. So we don’t like city shutdowns or mass testing, and we don’t think it’s helpful 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 because it has “very high infectivity, but fairly low rates of severe cases and deaths” among vaccinated populations. To date, 18.8 million Taiwanese, or 79% of the population, are fully immunized with two shots, according to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.
“(Taiwanese) have seen the lockdown situations in Shanghai, Zhengzhou and Beijing, and we don’t see it as really necessary to use the city lockdowns to contain the Omicron variant. It’s very difficult, a impossible mission.”
Chen said Taiwan should now focus on increasing Covid-19 recall coverage, as well as increasing distribution of antiviral drugs and rapid diagnostic kits to the community.
The government’s decision was popular. Most residents who spoke to CNN said they felt Taiwan’s new Covid-19 approach was preferable to the strict lockdown measures imposed in mainland China.
Jeff Huang, a Taipei resident who lived in mainland China for a few years, felt it was not possible to eradicate the virus.
“If we still had severe restrictions like on the (Chinese) mainland even after vaccination, it would be very painful and there would be no point in getting vaccinated,” he said.
A glimmer of hope ?
But while Taiwan’s approach is partly driven by a desire to avoid a Shanghai-like fate, there are also optimists who wonder whether it could have an effect in the opposite direction — giving hope to confined Chinese cities that there is indeed a way out of the zero-Covid corner.
Chen Chien-jen, who as vice president had led Taiwan’s first response to Covid-19, said many Taiwanese were initially skeptical about abandoning the elimination strategy because it had succeeded. for so long to maintain a low rate of community transmission.
Taiwan had previously only seen one major outbreak of Covid-19 – in May last year. This time he has banned in-person dining, closed entertainment venues and suspended schools to control the spread. It then managed to keep the number of cases at or near zero until March 15 this year.
But as the latest outbreak developed, Taiwanese realized that with a milder variant and high vaccination levels, the island could afford to live with it.
The rewards are clear to see. The quarantine for arrivals abroad has been reduced from 14 to seven days. Mandatory reading of QR codes before entering restaurants and shops has been removed. Close contacts of confirmed patients must now be quarantined for just three days.
There is also another advantage: no longer fighting a futile battle. As Chen said, “We can see that the zero-Covid policy can never achieve the goal of totally eliminating the virus in any country.”
Still, not everyone is convinced that Taiwan is quite ready to move on.
Since the beginning of May, as the number of cases has been rising, long queues have formed daily outside pharmacies in Taipei as residents jostle to buy rapid test kits. Many leave empty-handed despite hours of waiting.
The Department of Health has said those who do not show symptoms of Covid-19 must first test positive on a rapid test if they want to be eligible for a more accurate PCR test, which has not only increases demand.
The difficulty of buying the test kits has prompted some residents to complain about the authorities’ lack of preparation.
“It would have been better if the residents (prepared) before moving on to living with the virus,” said a mother named Hsueh, who has a 3-year-old boy. “Many families still do not have adequate access to rapid test kits.”
Other parents fear their children, who are still not eligible for vaccination in Taiwan, may be at risk.
“I feel like the government hasn’t considered children in their approach to living with the virus,” said another mother named Chang, whose two children are in kindergarten. “I’m worried…I’ve avoided taking my kids to indoor playgrounds, and only take them to parks when it’s less crowded.”
“Right now there are changes in the rules every day or two,” Hsueh said. “It can be really confusing, and it’s better to have a plan.”