TAIPEI, Taiwan – For the bulk of 2020, Taiwan was an anomaly on a planet ravaged by a pandemic.
At one point, it went eight months without recording a single domestic case of COVID-19. People were required to wear masks on buses and trains, but they were free to watch baseball in packed stadiums, go to sold-out concerts, and eat at restaurants. While much of the world was in some sort of lockdown, life in Taiwan was, well, normal.
But the good times were upended in late April, when a cluster of COVID-19 infections tumbled out of a hotel housing quarantined pilots and began rippling through the island. Over the last month, Taiwan has reported over 10,000 domestically-transmitted cases. For context, just two months prior, there had been fewer than 80 locally-spread cases in Taiwan since the start of the pandemic.
Until the recent outbreak, Taiwan was almost universally hailed as the poster child of pandemic success. “COVID? What COVID? Taiwan Thrives as a Bubble of Normality,” a New York Times headline in March read. But now, for the first time ever, Taiwan is in partial lockdown, and it’s too early to tell when normalcy might return.
With just over 3 percent of the population vaccinated, an urgency to contain the virus has intensified discord surrounding vaccines in Taiwan, with some blaming China for blocking access and others accusing the Taiwanese government of putting politics ahead of public health. That’s all topped off with a dizzying swirl of disinformation on vaccine efficacy and side effects.
Taken together, Taiwan’s struggles to ramp up its inoculation program serve as a cautionary tale of how easily the virus can reignite in an unvaccinated population—and how quickly politics can scupper even the most exemplary response to the pandemic.
The blame game
To date, Taiwan has only two brands of vaccines on its shores, AstraZeneca and Moderna, and possesses only about 2.1 million doses for a population of more than 23 million.
Who to blame for the failure to procure more vaccines has become the most divisive question. Most controversially, the Taiwanese government has accused China of interfering with its vaccine deals.
In a press conference on May 27, Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung revealed that the Taiwanese government had been in talks to buy vaccines directly from BioNTech last year.
The contract was already inked and a press release was about to be put forward, when the German biotechnology company asked that a reference to Taiwan as an independent country be removed from the statement, he said. China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has sought to prevent actions and statements seen as promoting the island’s independence.
“BioNTech suddenly sent a letter, saying they strongly recommend us to change the word ‘our country,’” Chen said. The Taiwanese government agreed to edit the phrase “our country” to “Taiwan,” but BioNTech cancelled the deal. “There’s no problem within the contract. The problem was something outside of the contract,” Chen added, implying Chinese interference.
BioNTech declined to comment on the issue. “It goes without saying that it is BioNTech’s goal to provide access to our vaccine to as many people worldwide as possible,” the company said in an email to VICE World News.
“The most important thing is that with everything that becomes political in Taiwan, the fundamental issue becomes how people feel about the People’s Republic of China,” said Lev Nachman, a visiting scholar at National Taiwan University who studies party politics in Taiwan.
“People here weren’t thinking about Taiwan’s pandemic response across blue and green lines until now,” he said, referring to Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) and the current ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), respectively.
China has denied interference in the BioNTech deal and blamed the DPP for launching a smear campaign. “We expressed on many occasions the readiness to do our best to help Taiwan compatriots fight the virus,” said China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbi in a press conference.
China has said that it’s willing to provide Taiwan vaccines through its Shanghai-based pharmaceuticals company Fosun International, which holds the franchise for distributing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
However, Beijing isn’t keen on other governments providing vaccines directly to Taiwan. On Friday, Japan donated 1.24 million excess doses of AstraZeneca to Taiwan, a move that has irritated China.
“We are firmly against those who exploit the pandemic to put on political shows or even meddle in China’s internal affairs,” Wang stated in response to news of Japan’s intended donation early last week.
And over the weekend, a trio of U.S. senators visited Taipei and pledged 750,000 vaccines to the island, which also irked Beijing. “We urge the U.S. to stop carrying out any official exchanges with Taiwan, and refrain from sending wrong signals to the secessionists to avoid damaging China-U.S. ties and cross-Straits stability,” Wang said in a statement.
“Civil society [in Taiwan] right now is really divided,” said Wu Chieh-huei, a professor at Academia Sinica who has written about vaccine nationalism and Taiwan on the global health stage. “BioNTech has a distribution agreement with Fosun. If we agree to buy a vaccine from Fosun, it signifies that Taiwan is part of this greater China area,” he said, explaining the aversion to buying from the Chinese company.
Taiwan has responded that it would rather deal directly with BioNTech, and that the modus operandi of the government is to either purchase vaccines directly through the original manufacturer or through Covax, a platform which guarantees equitable access to vaccines for every country in the world.
“Only by purchasing from the original manufacturer can we obtain direct guarantee in quality and safety to avoid legal and political risks,” President Tsai Ing-wen wrote in a post on her Facebook page. Taiwan’s Presidential Office spokesperson Kolas Yotaka put it in more blunt terms: “Taiwan shouldn’t be forced to buy Pfizer-BNT shots from a Chinese broker. This isn’t healthy,” she wrote on Twitter.
Members of the KMT—the Beijing-friendly opposition party—have jumped on the failed deal, accusing the DPP for putting politics before the welfare of the populace.
“Simply speaking, they are too arrogant, too complacent, and they are working too slow,” said Huang Kwei-bo, the deputy secretary-general of the KMT, in an interview with VICE World News. He pointed out that Fosun’s BioNTech shots are manufactured in Europe anyways. “There is no problem there,” he said. “Fosun is just a middleman based in Shanghai, so it’s not an issue of the vaccine being made in China.”
A number of KMT-friendly groups including a local county government, Foxconn, a school, and a Buddhist charity, have announced that they intend to procure vaccines themselves and donate them to the central government, with some of them open to bringing in China’s Sinopharm vaccine—which just received emergency use authorization from the World Health Organization last month.
However, COVID-19 vaccines made in China are banned in Taiwan, and as for the other brands, the Ministry of Health have said that all vaccines have to go through a stringent approval process first. “For companies, religious, and social groups that have recently expressed their willingness to invest in the purchase of vaccines overseas, the government is extremely thankful,” the Central Epidemic Command Center wrote in an email statement to VICE World News, reiterating that there needs to be a contract between the vaccine manufacturer and the central Taiwanese government in order for a deal to go through.
To date, none of the aforementioned parties have been able to fully complete the paperwork to facilitate the donation. Huang of the KMT said that the government is forcing the companies to “go through tedious red tapes.”
“I think this recent uptick in the interest of procuring vaccines via these channels is just a sign of how the government’s response has been weakened as a result of this domestic transmission,” said Taiwan analyst Jeremy Huai-Che Chiang. “Under more normal times, there wouldn’t be as much enthusiasm about this idea of the vaccine procurement process getting out of their hands and into the hands of local governments and corporations.”
Smoke and mirrors
The fear of not having enough vaccines has also generated an inflow of disinformation.
“We’ve seen that there’s a lot of information targeting AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna, saying that they are not good. They are promoting China’s vaccine a lot,” Wu Min-Hsuan, the co-founder of Doublethink Lab, told VICE World News. Doublethink Lab is a Taiwanese organization that researches modern threats to democracy.
He refers to a video that’s been making the rounds in Taiwan lately, of a man expressing gratitude for China’s vaccine and falsely accusing Western vaccines of having a strange, magnetism side effect. “We can see that there is a peak of information urging the government to accept China’s vaccine,” he said, although he conceded that it was unclear whether it was the result of coordinated efforts by China.
But it’s important to note that while Taiwan has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world, the island’s per capita infection rates are still quite low compared to other areas in Asia. And while Chinese interference may have a role in limiting the supply of vaccines, vaccine shortage is a global problem.
“There’s not one issue that explains the vaccine crisis right now. It’s very convenient to say that China is blocking Taiwan’s vaccine, but that’s a very oversimplified explanation,” said Nachman. “You could argue that it’s because Taiwan is in a gray zone, but that can’t explain why every other country in East Asia is also waiting.”
Vaccine hesitancy in Taiwan also predated the local outbreak. When the first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Taiwan in early March, the inoculation rate was so low even among front-line workers that the government opened up self-paid vaccinations to the general public. There was a reluctance surrounding the British-Swedish vaccine brand due to reports of blood clots by users overseas.
“People weren’t really enthusiastic and were a little bit worried about the side effects,” said Mark Chan, the program director at Jen-Ai Hospital International Patient Center in central Taiwan. Chan, who is a front-line worker, jumped on his opportunity to get a shot when priority vaccination slots opened up in March, and is one of the few people in Taiwan who is now fully vaccinated today. “It wasn’t until May when cases started to blow up that people felt the need to get vaccinated. I feel really lucky,” he said.
Today, demand for the shots exceeds supply. On the heels of the growing pressure, the Taiwanese government recently announced that it has secured 20 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from oversea sources and 10 million doses of domestically manufactured Taiwanese vaccines, the latter of which is still in the second-stage of its clinical trials.
The government also released plans to begin administering 1 million shots a week beginning late June, and an app is in the works to help coordinate the mass vaccination drive. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang, who is in charge of the app, wrote on Twitter in response to a flurry of confused inquiries on when the process will begin.
But despite the efforts to make up for lost time, the delayed vaccine response could have reverberating repercussions for the ruling party in Taiwan. The DPP, KMT, and the People’s Republic of China are all accusing each other of political theater.
“A lot of people are getting really emotional on social media,” said Chiang, the analyst. “The government is working very hard to get the vaccines. They see it as a battle for their political legitimacy.”
“If they can’t get back on their feet on this vaccine issue, in August there’s a political referendum and that’s potentially another blow for them. And you have the local elections coming up next year. They want to stop the bleeding as soon as possible.”