How Taiwan finally fell

So close but yet so far! Taiwan lost containment of COVID-19 with the finish line in sight.

180 local cases. That’s what Taiwan’s Dr. Fauci, Chen Shih-chung just confirmed on TV today (May 15th). After holding out for wave after wave, containing each breach with citizen vigilance, contact tracing and cool-headed and coordinated government action, there is now uncontained community spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan. How did we get to here?

The China Airlines/Novotel cluster

Like in previous breaches that were successfully contained, airline crews were the chink in Taiwan’s COVID armor. You have to remember back in the the halcyon days of early April, Taiwan was feeling so good about itself that it announced the opening of a tourism travel bubble with Palau. On April 15, they relaxed quarantine rules for flight crews.

At this point, the unfortunate underestimation of a mighty foe met with mind-boggling mismanagement and petty greed.

See the China Airline pilots were being quarantined/doing their self-health management at the Taoyuan Novotel. At the same time, the Novotel decided it was a great time to run a promo packages for domestic tourists who are “air travel fans.” For NT$3000 a night (around US$100), you get to stay in the Novotel and watch the flights take off and land from the comfort of your room at nearby Taoyuan airport. The Taoyuan Tourism Bureau even promoted this insanity with a subsidy. “Just Love Taoyuan! Discount for stays!”

Luckily, there are two separate buildings at the Novotel. As long as the air travel fans and the people under quarantine are staying in separate buildings, we’re still OK right? Oops! Novotel totally put a bunch of pilots and crew in the same building as the tourists.

By late April, 9 China airline pilots tested positive and the thread between how the infections connected were already becoming confused. Tourists who had stayed at the hotel found out watching the news that they accidentally stayed at a quarantine hotel rather than being actively contact traced. This developed into a major cluster.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the tourists and the crew mingled. They did not. The crew were kept on separate floors. Cross contamination might have happened via sharing staff.

Lions, Grandpa Shops and Temple hopping

Things really got real on my birthday, the 12th of May. Two local clusters emerged. One revolved around a dinner of Lion’s club members. The other was around some “sexy tea parlors,” also known as “Grandpa shops” in the Wanhua district of Taipei. The Grandpa shops are basically hostess bars where older women take care of an older clientele. This lead to an unforgettably delicate description by Chen Shih-Chung: “'I have no personal experience but it's my understanding it's hard to keep consistent with masking and social distancing under the circumstances...”

The dots got connected later. Turns out the Lions, after having dinner and singing karaoke, went to a Grandpa Store. The “Lion King” owned up to it like a boss. Testing revealed it was the English Variant, just like the Novotel cluster. Are the threads finally getting connected again? But it’s too late. The Grandpa shop ladies and the Lions are all unusually active individuals, it seems, going to music performances, temple hopping all over Taiwan. Just as the original thread was getting connected, it had already many more broken threads.

Side note: Don’t underestimate the vitality of the old folks in Taiwan. Dinner followed by karaoke followed by more shenanigans? Makes me tired just reading about it!

So where are we now?

We can expect that more bad news is almost certainly baked into the epidemiological cake. With more testing will come more positive cases. For the first time anywhere in Taiwan, we are going on Level 3 alert for Taipei. Let’s call it soft lockdown. Level 4 would be real lockdown. I would expect some other places in Taiwan to go Level 3 in the upcoming days too.

People are doing one last shop with queues of up to 45 minutes in the supermarkets and obligatory toilet paper hoarding. But otherwise I think the mood is actually relatively calm.

The vaccines are coming. There’s been a bit of vaccine snobbery for the AstraZeneca vaccines obtained so far, but with the current situation, you can be sure ever last shot will end up in arms. 5.5 million doses of Moderna is due to arrive soon too. Too slowly but surely, the whole island will get vaccinated and safe.

Until then, we all have to sit tight.