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Taiwan Faces Uptick In Coronavirus Cases


Taiwan has managed the pandemic exceptionally well. Last year, when COVID-19 raged, Taiwan recorded fewer than 800 confirmed infections and just seven deaths. This island of roughly 24 million people even saw an eight-month stretch without a single new case. But now, Taiwan is grappling with its worst outbreak yet. NPR's John Ruwitch explains what went wrong.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Things started to look a bit dicey for Taiwan last month. The government relaxed quarantine rules for airline crews flying international routes. By the end of April, clusters emerged that were linked to cargo pilots for the flag carrier China Airlines.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: It made headlines. Jason Wang is a doctor at Stanford University. He wrote about Taiwan's early success in a medical journal last year. And he recently returned from about six months in Taiwan, where he says people were starting to get complacent.

JASON WANG: Restaurants were packed. There were concerts. So just getting a little more relaxed. And so the index of suspicion for COVID was just low.

RUWITCH: Taiwan authorities weren't testing people in quarantine without symptoms, which is fine when quarantine is two weeks long. For pilots, it had been slashed to three days, to be followed by self-management. But not everybody complied with even those lax requirements. One pilot reportedly went to a pub during that period and later tested positive. Add to the mix a more transmissible variant, some superspreaders, and Taiwan is now finding itself scrambling to contain an outbreak. The total number of cases has quadrupled in two weeks to more than 5,000.

NATALIE TSO: Well, I think psychologically, we thought we had this thing beat.

RUWITCH: Natalie Tso is a TV and radio show host in Taipei.

TSO: And then all of the sudden, it's like we're almost starting all over, and it's overtaking our lives again to some extent.

RUWITCH: Overtaking lives because the government has imposed its toughest restrictions yet. Gatherings are limited, masks are required in public, schools have been shut and people have been told to stay home. The government's running public service announcements online and on TV like this one, about how to use a smartphone app for contact tracing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: For now, Taiwan's numbers remain relatively small. The CDC has been reporting a few hundred new cases every day. There have been 35 deaths from COVID. But only around 1% of the population is vaccinated, and it'll take time for a vaccination campaign to ramp up. For Chai Lee who lived in Brooklyn until January and now lives in Taipei near his parents, it's deja vu.

CHAI LEE: It's like I escaped what was happening in America about a year ago to relive this again here in Taiwan.

RUWITCH: He's not so worried about the outbreak, but his mother is.

LEE: And I got to keep reminding her. I'm like, I've done this already. Like, it's OK.

RUWITCH: This, too, shall pass, he says. All they need to do is just be careful.

John Ruwitch, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "NEVER MESS WITH SUNDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.