Taiwan sees sharp rise in Covid cases, posing risk to Lunar New Year

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Ann Wang/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Ann Wang/Reuters

Taiwan has reported a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases with a cluster among workers at a factory threatening authorities’ tenuous control of an Omicron outbreak on the eve of Lunar New Year.

On Saturday, Taiwan’s centre for disease control reported 82 domestic cases, including 63 found at the Taoyuan factory in a first round of testing on Friday. Most of those sick are migrant workers, health and welfare minister Chen Shih-chung said.

Taiwan maintains strict controls on its borders, with the few eligible entrants sent into 14 days of quarantine, seven days of self-managed semi-isolation, and multiple tests. With Omicron sweeping around the world, larger numbers of positive cases have been reported among new arrivals, despite requirements for a negative test before boarding departure flights.

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In recent weeks authorities have responded to clusters in Taoyuan connected to the international airport, and another in the southern city of Kaohsiung. Among Saturday’s figures were 14 new cases in the latter cluster, but the CDC said the airport cluster appears to have stabilised after tracing and isolation efforts. Saturday’s figures followed 23 cases reported on Friday, in Taoyuan and Kaohsiung.

Taiwan has adopted a zero-Covid strategy in practice, if not formal policy, which has kept the island relatively Covid free for most of the pandemic. Its largest outbreak in the second half of 2021 saw more than 800 died after the Alpha variant infected thousands and a small rural outbreak of Delta infected 17, but it was eventually brought back to zero.

In the months since, vaccination rates have increased and booster shots have begun to be rolled out. The capital city Taipei on Friday launched a mandatory vaccine passport for entry into some venues, like bars and clubs. On Saturday the CDC said 73% of migrant workers were vaccinated with two doses.

Governments and companies in Taiwan were criticised last year for poor treatment of migrant workers during the outbreak. Thousands were ordered to remain in crowded dorms, which many feared put them at higher risk of contracting Covid-19, and they were subjected to harsher restrictions than local employees who worked along side them.

On Saturday, the ministry of labor recommended migrant workers in Taoyuan not go out into the city or Greater Taipei, and said companies which employ 50 or more migrant workers to conduct mass testing.

With Lunar New Year holidays beginning next week, authorities urged people to be cautious in mixing with others and travel, but did not impose restrictions.

The increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant has challenged the remaining jurisdictions with zero Covid strategies. In nearby Hong Kong authorities found at least 75 community cases at a residential block on Friday, the South China Morning Post reported. Another residential block was placed into a five-day lockdown on Friday after 34 cases were detected.

Hong Kong has reintroduced social restrictions and imposed other controversial measures, including ordering the surrender and destruction of more than 2,000 hamsters across the city after 11 were found to be infected at a pet shop where an employee fell ill with Covid.

In China, Omicron has been detected in at least seven of the country’s 31 provinces, including several cases in the capital, Beijing. A range of restrictions have been imposed by local authorities, causing some confusion and fear around the possibility of travel during the Lunar New Year period.

Authorities in the north-eastern city of Harbin said on Saturday that they will conduct a city-wide exercise to test its roughly 10 million people for Covid from Monday, although it has had no recent cases, calling it an pre-emptive move ahead of the holiday.

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