A post titled “I want to get COVID-19 to pay off my debts” caused a stir on popular Internet forum Dcard last month, as the anonymous user asked for the blood or saliva of the infected so she could claim her pandemic insurance payout of NT$75,000. She had paid just NT$809 for the policy.
Although the user later clarified that the post was made in jest to criticize the government’s handling of the ongoing insurance crisis, it’s entirely plausible that some would get infected on purpose to receive their payout — especially given that over 99 percent of the reported Omicron cases have been mild or asymptomatic.
The issue is so sensitive that when entertainer Chen Chia-hsing (陳嘉行) was accused last week of indirectly encouraging people to proactively contract the virus, one of the main points in his denial was “I did not buy pandemic insurance.”
Photo: Chiu Shu-yu, Taipei Times
None of this was a problem for the insurance companies who sold policy after policy when Taiwan was a zero-COVID success story — until early last month, that is. They didn’t seem to mind that roughly 40 percent of those who bought the insurance purchased policies from multiple providers; one individual was reportedly insured by 11 of the 12 companies offering pandemic insurance.
The climb in local cases sparked another buying frenzy, but by April 20, all local property insurance companies had halted their policies for quarantined people. They had sold a total of 1.65 million COVID-19 policies up to that point. There were 1,727 new cases that day — which seems like nothing now as the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) yesterday reported 85,356.
However, the CECC’s prediction that the infection rate could climb to 15 percent caused them to panic. On Saturday, Fubon Life Insurance (富邦人壽) announced that it was rejecting and refunding all pending applications for those who bought more than one insurance policy.
Photo: Tian Yu-hua, Taipei Times
In addition to the financial stress on these companies, concerns over digital certification fraud and deliberate infections grew as the government made it easier for people to confirm a positive test to lessen the burden on hospitals. The situation drew comparisons to Thailand, whose companies also offered cheap, lump-sum policies when cases were low. Four firms there have since shut down due to a lack of capital.
The buying frenzy essentially began last January, when Taiwan Fire & Marine Insurance Co (TFMI, 台灣產物保險) unveiled a policy for NT$500 with payouts of up to NT$100,000 if the policy holder was quarantined. Dubbed the “heavenly pandemic prevention policy” (防疫神單), people hoping to, um, get lucky, lined up for up to six hours for the product.
Screen grab taken from Chen Chia-hsing’s Facebook page
“I want to make NT$100,000,” a woman told a television reporter, sparking an online outrage and a popular meme — but why else were so many people lining up?
TFMI soon stopped the policy, but it felt the heat when the outbreak happened in May last year. As cases grew, the policy — which earned them NT$1.9 billion — was looking like a losing venture. By the end of the summer, however, cases headed back to double and single digits.
Once things died down, it was business as usual, with another buying frenzy in January due to various cluster infections.
Hotai Insurance Co (和泰產險) launched what was called the “new heavenly pandemic prevention policy,” on Jan. 1, but canceled 10 days later after the Financial Security Commission (FSC) expressed concerns.
A buying frenzy occurred once again in April, and when the CECC made its dire prediction that COVID-19 cases were going to skyrocket, companies rushed to pull the plug. It didn’t help that the Omicron variant led many to relax their guard. There were online discussions about getting deliberately infected to “get it over with,” take a break from work or claim insurance money, sparking much controversy. The term “to proactively get infected” (積極染疫) went viral when a Facebook user named Ash Chang claimed that he had “accomplished” the feat of getting his entire family infected so they could get on with their lives.
On May 9, SET News (三立新聞) reported that insurance companies were claiming that infected people were selling their used masks and drinking water online to help others contract the virus. The Taipei Times could find no evidence, nor any other reports of this behavior aside from one pixelated screenshot from a South Korean online marketplace in a TVBS news report, with the mask going for 50,000 Korean won (about NT$1,160).
After rumors swirled that insurance companies would deny all payments for cases between April and June, the FSC reiterated that all existing contracts must be honored.
Things boiled over on May 5, when the CECC announced that starting May 12, a positive rapid antigen test could serve as confirmation of a case for certain groups as hospitals became overburdened with skyrocketing cases. Insurance companies balked at the government’s suggestion that they accept digital certificates without a written diagnosis, noting that it was susceptible to fraud.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) was unsympathetic.
“It’s the insurance industry’s business to authenticate the claims,” he said during a press conference, although the CECC later updated the digital certificate system to include national ID numbers and a QR code with which insurers could examine policyholders’ information.
Regarding deliberate infections, FSC Chairman Huang Tien-mu (黃天牧) said during a legislative session on May 2, “We aren’t sure if this is happening, and anyhow it’s very difficult to determine whether someone got infected on purpose or not.”
While urging the insurance companies to honor their contracts, Consumer Foundation chairman Terry Huang (黃怡騰) added, “Consumers should not treat these policies as lottery tickets, as this is a dangerous compensation mechanism. Do not get deliberately infected, it is not healthy and our foundation does not encourage it.”
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