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The Politics of Taiwan’s COVID-19 Response

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The Politics of Taiwan’s COVID-19 Response

Taiwan’s first real COVID-19 outbreak engendered fierce political debates between the DPP and the KMT.

The Politics of Taiwan’s COVID-19 Response
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

On May 15, cases spiked to 180 overnight after a year in which COVID-19 had been kept under control in Taiwan. On August 25, 101 days later, Taiwan reported zero cases for the first time in three months. Between these two events, however, Taiwan’s COVID-19 situation became the arena for intense political contestation between the pan-Green and pan-Blue camps.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) had previously benefited domestically from preventing COVID-19 from taking hold in Taiwan for over a year. But this summer the Tsai administration was blamed by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party for having allowed COVID-19 to finally enter Taiwan’s borders. Much criticism centered around the DPP legislative caucus deciding to lower the quarantine period for pilots to three days of quarantine, followed by 11 days of self-health management, from a previous schedule of five days of quarantine and nine days of self-health management.

This was initially viewed as the root cause of the summer surge in cases, though the Tsai administration has more recently announced that it does not view the outbreak as having originated from a cluster centered on China Airlines crew members. DPP legislator Fan Yun, who hosted the meeting where the pilot quarantine decision was made, came under particular scrutiny and the KMT called for the records of this meeting to be publicized, which the DPP has declined to do.

Conflict was particularly intense between the central government and local governments controlled by KMT and other pan-Blue politicians. The outbreak was brought under control without requiring a shift to a full lockdown, with the COVID-19 alert status remaining at “level three,” in which indoor gatherings of more than five and outdoor gatherings of more than 10 are forbidden and mask-wearing is required outside of home, but work continues to take place.

However, pan-Blue politicians such as Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and New Taipei Mayor Hou You-yi continuously called for escalating the alert level. At a time in which Taiwan was at “level two,” Ko and Hou called for shifting to level three, or warned that they would be moving independently to a “quasi-level three” status. As measures began to be relaxed, Ko and Hou again declined to follow suit, such as refraining from allowing for indoor dining after the central government announced that this could again take place. Ko and Hou were generally seeking to upstage the Tsai administration, by trying to depict the latter as lax in its measures against COVID-19.

The most political debate in Taiwan has centered around vaccines, however. While the Tsai administration had already ordered close to 20 million vaccines – a solid number for Taiwan’s population of 23 million – by the start of the outbreak, Taiwan only had just over 300,000 doses of AstraZeneca due to delays in shipment. The public was initially unwilling to be vaccinated using AstraZeneca due to fears of blood clots, resulting in concerns that even these vaccines would expire before they were used.

The rate of vaccination picked up after the outbreak began, but the Tsai administration was attacked by the KMT, which claimed that Taiwan’s lack of vaccines was a particular fault of the government, even though countries around the world had experienced delays in vaccine shipments. The KMT also accused the Tsai administration of having failed the public because the only vaccines available at the time were supposedly dangerous AstraZeneca vaccines.

This did not prevent the KMT itself from suffering a scandal regarding vaccines, however. High-ranking members of the party, including former Vice President Lien Chan and former Taipei mayoral candidate Ting Shou-chung, were found to have violated the vaccination priority order to be vaccinated, despite not being medical workers.

Members of the KMT began calling to be allowed to negotiate vaccine purchases on their own, with FoxConn’s Terry Gou, a former contender for the KMT’s presidential nomination, stating that he intended to purchase 5 million BioNTech vaccines for Taiwan. The Sun Yat-Sen School, an ideologically hardline KMT educational institution, claimed that a Chinese organization called Beijing Cross-Straits Eastern Culture Center intended to donate 10 million vaccines to Taiwan, 5 million BioNTech vaccines and 5 million Sinopharm vaccines. Former KMT chair Hung Hsiu-chu expressed a willingness to travel to China to negotiate purchases of Chinese vaccines.

Pan-Blue local governments also argued that they should be allowed to negotiate vaccine purchases, suggesting they could do better than the central government. In one notable incident, Taitung county magistrate Rao Ching-ling claimed to have purchased 300,000 vaccines, but said that she could not reveal the origin of these vaccines. These vaccines that Rao claimed to have purchased never materialized.

The Tsai administration alleged Chinese interference in vaccine purchases and, likewise, required proof from groups seeking to negotiate vaccine purchases that these vaccines were sent from the original manufacturer, so that vaccines from unclear sources could not be sent to Taiwan.

Eventually, Gou’s Yonglin Foundation, semiconductor manufacturing giant TSMC, and humanistic Buddhist organization Tzu Chi were allowed to negotiate BioNTech purchases on behalf of the government, with other organizations possibly added to negotiations so that they would appear more bipartisan.

Further disputes have centered around Taiwan’s domestically manufactured vaccine, Medigen. Controversially, the Tsai administration allowed for emergency use authorization of the vaccine without large-scale phase three trials, though phase two trials were expanded in the absence of phase three trials. Likewise, the Tsai administration subsidized the mass production of Medigen ahead of time before the vaccine’s efficacy was tested, in a process similar to the United States’ Operation Warp Speed. The Tsai administration authorized the move in an attempt to address Taiwan’s lack of vaccines.

The KMT has attacked this process, claiming a lack transparency and accusing the Tsai administration of playing dangerous games with the health of Taiwanese – even alleging that the administration was treating Taiwanese as “lab rats.” The KMT also questioned whether Tsai and officials in her administration could have financial interests in promoting Medigen, and that the administration engineered vaccine shortages for this purpose. The KMT also framed offers by the Tsai administration to send vaccines to diplomatic allies as an attempt to foist dangerous untested vaccines onto allies. Probably to make inroads on the youth vote – a demographic it has become alienated from – the KMT criticized the Tsai administration by pointing out that the Medigen vaccines were primarily left for young people, as older demographics had been vaccinated with other brands.

Meanwhile, on August 23 Tsai received a dose of the Medigen vaccine herself, broadcasting the whole process live on her Facebook page, to help boost public confidence in the jab.

Thus far, the KMT does not appear to have gained from the outbreak. Based on approval ratings, both the DPP and KMT have taken a hit following the outbreak, perhaps illustrating that the KMT’s efforts to attack the DPP during the outbreak were not successful. At the same time, we can expect recent events regarding the outbreak to have consolidated support for the KMT for some demographics.

With the Delta variant having finally entered community transmission in Taiwan in the past week, expect political contestation between the DPP and KMT to continue, especially with KMT chair elections scheduled to take place on September 25. As seen in the recent KMT chair debates, COVID-19 looms large for opposition party as an issue with which to attack the DPP.