"Life will not return to the old normal anytime soon."
Wednesday last week we were reporting in this space how the stock market in Taiwan was booming, in large part because of their government and people’s success in thwarting the spread of the coronavirus infection for the last 16 months.
Two days later, things changed. On Thursday, 29 new cases of locally-transmitted COVID-19 infections were reported. A day later, it rose to 180 new infections.
As a result, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) raised the COVID alert level for the capital and adjoining New Taipei City to Level 3, as an unusual spike never before experienced since the Wuhan virulence invaded the entire world, happened in what was a very controlled situation in Taiwan. Alert Level 3 will be effective up to May 28, a two-week period during which contract workers, such as Filipinos, Indonesians and from other Asean and South Asian sub-continents will not be allowed into the island.
Alert Level 3 is being imposed in Taiwan for the first time. Containment measures include the wearing of face masks at all times when outdoors. Gatherings are strictly limited to five people. All places of business and public venues will be shut down, with the exception of essential services such as hospitals and the police department. The wearing of face masks and social distancing will be strictly imposed in those offices that are allowed to remain open. Targeted community lockdowns where community transmissions have taken place will likewise be imposed.
As a result of the Alert Level 3, religious services in churches have been stopped. Yesterday, the favorite church of Filipino OFWs, St. Christopher in the Zhongshan district of Taipei City, was closed down, its masses limited to online services. Our OFWs had to stay in their homes and dormitories, missing their routine Sunday day-off activities. All university campuses were shuttered.
MECO offices have also had to close down, because with indoor gatherings limited to five persons, it was impossible for us to conduct regular business. The red ink on our bottom line continues to increase.
In an otherwise sea of calm, the community transmission became a virulent shock. To residents of Taiwan.
Unaccustomed to the situation, people panicked and emptied grocery shelves of practically every food and household item, including toilet paper. Long queues in every supermarket and grocery was a common sight.
Although a Level 3 alert stops short of a total lockdown, Taiwan’s health ministry and the entire government are not taking any chances. If contact tracing efforts are unable to contain the transmission, a total lockdown similar to our severest ECQ is still possible. Other cities, such as Kaohsiung, Taichung and Hsinchu are also on alert, although of lower levels.
It seems the virulence began with airline crews, at a time when travel restrictions were about to be relaxed, to a point where in mid-April, a travel bubble between Taiwan and Palau was unveiled. Though it fell flat due to lack of economies of scale, possibilities of expanding the bubble to other “relatively safe” places like Singapore and Vietnam were on the drawing board.
But a mistake was made. China Airline pilots are quarantined upon arrival at an airport hotel, run by Novotel of the French Sofitel/Mercure/Novotel/Ibis worldwide hotel chain. For five days, airline crews were on self-health management in the hotel.
Then hotel management launched a promo package for domestic tourists to “staycation”, with the ability to watch airplanes land and take-off, a novelty for travel-hungry locals who in pre-pandemic times would fly to nearby destinations, Japan being the favorite, even on short week-end jaunts.
It was in the airport hotel where airline crews and locals on staycation uncontrollably mingled in the dining areas. This was one source of undetected transmission.
Some of the locals later went to the temples which dot the capital, and also to the karaoke shops. Hence the spread of the virulence.
In late April, Taiwanese were quite skeptical about the need for vaccines. What was available was Astra-Zeneca, and at the low cost of only 600 NT dollars, or roughly a thousand pesos, even foreigners like us could get a jab. But since there seemed to be no community transmission, and despite so many hospitals available as vaccination sites, the roll-out was rather slow.
Moderna is coming very soon, and a locally-produced vaccine is expected to roll out by July. With the spike in cases, one could expect the reluctance to get vaccinated to turn around.
There is a lesson here that applies to any and all countries in the world: Never lower your guard. With or without the vaccine shot, keep wearing the face mask, observe social distancing, and maintain high levels of personal hygiene, particularly frequent washing and disinfecting of hands. Eat a healthy diet, take vitamin C, D and zinc supplements, try getting some sunshine and exercise, and drink plenty of lukewarm or warm water.
You never know when COVID-19 strikes again and again, or mutates into more severe strains. Life will not return to the old normal anytime soon.