With health officials struggling to keep a lid on a spike in COVID-19 infections, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) has extended the nationwide level 3 pandemic alert until June 14. [Editor’s note: The Cabinet on Tuesday extended the level 3 alert until June 28.] As a result, in last month’s iteration of Bloomberg’s COVID Resilience Ranking, Taiwan slipped from fifth place to 15th.
On May 27, the center said that it would begin distributing about 410,000 doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The batch arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday last week.
On May 17, US President Joe Biden announced that Washington would send an additional 20 million doses of US-approved vaccines abroad before the end of this month.
Not to be outdone, at the Global Health Summit on May 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) announced that Beijing had supplied 300 million vaccine doses to the world and would provide US$3 billion of international aid over the next three years to support the global COVID-19 response, and help developing nations to recover economically and socially from the crisis.
Not wanting to be left out, the EU pledged to supply at least 100 million vaccine doses to developing nations by the end of the year.
It did not take long for the US-China vaccine competition to reach the shores of Taiwan. Although the surge in domestic COVID-19 infections since the beginning of last month is smaller than what most nations have faced, Taiwan’s status as a model of epidemic prevention took a large blow. The US and China have moved to fill Taiwan’s pressing need for more vaccines.
Beijing said that it was willing to assist Taiwan by providing vaccine-related support, meaning that it could supply Taiwan with its home-grown vaccines. However, this came with a proviso: Taipei must “acknowledge that Taiwan is part of ‘one China.’”
In Washington, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra promised Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) that he would raise Taiwan’s urgent vaccine requirements with Biden and that the US would take Taiwan’s needs into consideration as it distributed vaccines to the world.
US senators, Democratic and Republican, wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to request that Taiwan be on a priority list of Indo-Pacific nations to receive US-donated vaccines.
Meanwhile, some local politicians and commentators have been offering their own offbeat “advice” and “opinions,” such as: “The US is not duty-bound to provide a single vaccine to Taiwan” and “If there is enough global stock, then US vaccines could be considered.”
Official Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) policy now says: “Local governments should be permitted to negotiate their own deals to acquire vaccine shots.” Move over “united front” — dodgy Chinese vaccines are a new way for pro-China politicians to trample over Taiwanese, as if they were mere blades of grass.
Internationally, COVID-19 vaccines are all about politics, specifically big-power politics, since vaccines are the starting point for strategic competition in the post-pandemic world.
In Taiwan, vaccines have become a political football. The KMT and the mayors of Taipei and New Taipei City have all been hard at work. It seems that, in the eyes of opposition politicians, the unseen enemy is not the virus, but rather the government.
Some people are turning Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (侯友宜) into divine figures, while others criticize the outer circle of the pan-green camp, saying that it is using Ko to undermine Hou.
President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration has to wrestle with the virus while simultaneously battling with the World Health Assembly (WHA), fighting to obtain supplies of vaccines and dealing with a myriad of other domestic challenges, including a serious drought, power outages, a deluge of fake news and misinformation, and an increased military threat from China.
If the Democratic Progressive Party allows itself to become sucked into the vortex of populism as a result of the referendums in August and local elections next year, the party runs the risk of repeating the same mistakes that cost it the 2018 local elections.
While the opposition is looking only as far as the next election, Beijing is looking ahead to 2024.
Several months ago, Beijing announced that it would provide 10 million vaccine doses to the COVAX global vaccine-sharing program, a move intended to benefit Taiwan. As the number of domestic infections rises, Beijing has more explicitly stated its conditions, saying that the “island’s internal political obstacles must be removed as a matter of priority.”
This would mean swallowing Beijing’s so-called “1992 consensus” and its “one China” principle. In other words, Beijing is offering Taiwan a “‘one China’ vaccine.” Beijing is also using “vaccine diplomacy” to try to pick off Taiwan’s allies, such as Honduras, which has not ruled out severing ties with Taiwan in exchange for the “‘one China’ vaccine.”
Honduran General Coordinating Minister Carlos Alberto Madero has said: “We believe geopolitics and vaccines are interrelated,” while KMT Chairman Johnny Chiang (江啟臣) has said: “Vaccines have been elevated to a national strategic issue.”
As Chiang acknowledges this to be the case, would it be wise of Taiwan to rely on China to vaccinate its population? Do the Taiwanese politicians and commentators who are using vaccines to stir up anti-US sentiment honestly believe that they are helping the nation’s strategic interests?
The COVID-19 situation in Taiwan appears serious because of its nearly immaculate record in tackling the virus up until the beginning of last month and the severity of the situation in other nations. Taiwan is in no small part a victim of its own success. After more than a year of rigid adherence to the government’s disease prevention measures, the public began to let down its guard and many started to ignore official guidance.
Taiwan’s airline and sex industries became chinks in its armor. The situation was exacerbated by the public’s hesitancy, especially healthcare personnel, to get vaccinated when the program began — a psychological barrier has been erected in people’s minds and cemented there by political misinformation.
As a result, the public is jittery; its nerves are shot to pieces.
Those continuing to stoke the rumor mill — who portray vaccines as an urgent miracle cure and agitate for the Chinese vaccine without thinking for a moment of the consequences — should stop playing politics. If China really wanted to help Taiwan, it would stop blocking Taiwan’s attendance at the World Health Assembly, cease obstructing the supply of Germany’s BioNTech vaccine, and show some kindness and humanity for once.
Anyone with their head screwed on knows that Taiwan’s acceptance of the “‘one China’ vaccine” would spell disaster for the nation. Just prior to China launching its vaccine offensive, at the G7 meeting last month, foreign ministers issued a communique backing “Taiwan’s meaningful participation” in WHO forums and the WHA.
The French Senate also passed a unanimous resolution calling for Taiwan’s inclusion in several international bodies, including the WHO, and the US has called on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan to take part in the WHA as an observer.
Despite having previously talked about the “common community ideas of human health and well-being,” Xi once again boorishly blocked Taiwan’s attendance at the WHA and continues to obstruct an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Blocking Taiwan’s involvement in the global community and using vaccines as blackmail during a global pandemic equate to state-sponsored terrorism; these are not the actions of a benevolent and responsible nation.
Once Taiwan gets through this temporary setback, a consensus will quickly form around vaccines. Vaccination rates will be crucial to restarting the global economy in the post-pandemic world. In an effort to address this, the EU has said that it is developing a “vaccine passport” to be implemented on July 1.
While the COVID-19 transmission rate remains high, Taiwanese must act responsibly to avoid punching additional holes in the nation’s disease prevention system and prevent the squandering of all the hard work done over the past year to make it the envy of the world.
The government is duty-bound to distribute vaccines released by democratic countries and to develop a safe locally manufactured vaccine — and the opposition must not mess this up.
The nation narrowly avoided the “1992 consensus” and the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. As China manipulates the WHO behind the scenes, attempts to choke off Taiwan’s supply of vaccines and engages in cognitive warfare against the nation, Taiwanese must rally together, finish off what was started and take Taiwan across the finish line.
Translated by Edward Jones
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