A COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan and its global ramifications

Posted on Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Author: Prof. André Laliberté

Andre Laliberte

Faculty Affiliate, ISSP
Full Professor, Political Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of
Ottawa

Taiwan has effectively handled the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, but is now facing an unexpected outbreak. Although the numbers still pale in comparison to Canada, the trends in the last few days points to a rise in cases and low vaccination rates. Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) was confident the disease was under control because of the early closure of its borders, efficient quarantine practices and a tracking system to ensure monitoring of transmission. However, Taiwanese society has suddenly discovered a vulnerability as vaccines are in short supply. The ability of Taiwan to tackle COVID-19, so impressive until now, appears to be in question.

Although President Tsai Ying-wen has faced some criticism from opposition politicians, she stands a good chance to emerged unscathed from this outbreak. The Taiwanese bio-technology sector is already working to develop a vaccine: a locally-based biopharmaceutical company, Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corporation, has confirmed no adverse effects in phase two trials. The vaccine manufacturer hopes to obtain an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), an official approval for its production and delivery. However, as the CECC head, Doctor Chen Chih-Chung, admitted in response to questioning in the Legislature, the vaccine may not receive immediate international certification. This means that people vaccinated with the Medigen Vaccine will not be recognized as immunized outside of Taiwan. In the meantime, the CECC is working hard to ensure vaccination of as many Taiwanese people as soon as possible.

Vaccine availability, however, has been subjected to pressures from China, which offered to distribute to Taiwan its vaccine via Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd. This offer to help had a strict condition attached: Taiwan must surrender to the claim that it is governed by Beijing. The dilemma faced by President Tsai is acute: if she refuses help from China on matters of principle, she appears willing to sacrifice the health of the population to score political points; if she accepts, she will be criticized for capitulating to bullying. The point was well-summarized by Steven Tsang at SOAS, when he said that “the situation was one in which China could not lose and Taiwan could not win.” Despite the criticism of politicians from the opposition, a majority of the population stands behind President Tsai, as most people do not trust the vaccine from China. A public opinion survey conducted in the island has revealed that two-thirds of the population would refuse a jab from a vaccine produced in China, even though three Taiwanese out of four, according to the same poll, hope that political dialogue could resume between Taiwan and China.  

Some of this skepticism is shared by health authorities elsewhere. As a result, the Taiwanese government has felt it necessary to turn to other suppliers abroad before it can produce its own vaccine. Taipei had reached an agreement with a German firm, BioNTech, for sale of the Pfizer vaccine. However, the supply was conditional on the removal of the word ‘country’ in a joint announcement between BioNTech and Taiwan’s Health Minister, an intervention that led President Tsai to blame the delivery delays on China. To offset this delay, other governments have lent their support and help Taiwan address its vaccine shortage. On June 4, Japan delivered a donation of 1.24 million doses of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine to Taiwan. In the days following, the United States announced that it was giving 750,000 doses to Taiwan.

China’s response, denouncing these donations as ‘interference’ in its ‘internal’ affairs, did not surprise outsiders. It came two weeks after the World Health Assembly refused again to bring to its agenda the issue of Taiwan’s inclusion in the World Health Organization, despite widespread support from Western countries, and because of China’s pressure on the Assembly. 

As it grapples with its first real outbreak of COVID-19, the counterproductivity of Taiwan’s exclusion from this forum for global health is in full view. First, it provides fodder for populist politicians who are already skeptical of the United Nations system, as the previous American administration has demonstrated. These forces remain important in the United States and in many Western societies. In other words, when China excludes Taiwan, it reinforces the voices of those who seek to undermine international organizations of global governance. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the health of Taiwanese is an issue of global concern, because of its pivotal position in the global supply chain. The Taiwanese government has announced that it would ensure the employees working of the its science park of Hsinchu, Taichung and Tainan will have priority along with medical and frontline workers and military personnel. 

Taiwan’s outbreak is a problem for the entire world. A global hub for shipping and transport, microchips and electronics, the health of Taiwanese workers has serious implications for Canada. The time is opportune to call attention to its marginalization in global health diplomacy.

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