Taiwan: The True Cost of Zero Covid

What went wrong with Taiwan’s Zero-COVID stretagy…

Taiwan has been heralded as one of the few covid success stories. I would say it was deserved, until May 2021. Then there was their level three lockdown, and soon after the end of at-home quarantine. It was the end of what I, someone who has lived in Taiwan since March 2018, could reasonably support, to defend to contemporaries in the West. The forced hotel quarantine is one thing, what happened when you tested positive, even a false positive, was another. I did a 14-day quarantine, I did not endure what you can see in the photos below. I was never a pilot who lived a life of work, quarantine, work, then quarantine. Nor was I a member of their families, in constant fear of a spouse being diagnosed. The risk of an entire family, kids, and all, being placed into a hospital room cell. Nor was I an immigrant factory worker, treated like something less than human. Truly a second-class citizen, maybe even third, given a separate set of rules they have been given, that no one else must deal with. Is Taiwan truly that friendly victimized democracy it is often painted as, when they disallow migrant workers the ability to leave their dorms without permission to simply go to a convenient store, to simply acquire quality food? Something has gone terribly wrong here. Most of us living in Taiwan have no idea what is truly happening. The attempts of many trying to get their stories out have been silenced. I will attempt to share their stories. The stories of those paying the true cost of Zero-Covid.

What is Zero Covid?

Zero-COVID is a term we see in the news most often regarding China and Hongkong, but Taiwan is another country on the list still trying to make it a reality. Let’s first define Zero-Covid. Zero-COVID is a two-phase process. It initiates with aggressive local action making use of contact tracing and quarantines to eliminate the local spread of the virus. In the second phase, the Zero-Covid level is maintained through mask-wearing, maintained contact tracing social distancing, and the occasional mass quarantining if an outbreak is discovered. The purpose of Zero-COVID is to reduce the strain on the public health system and to attempt to allow the populace to live almost normal lives. It is a solution that, prior to vaccines, was employed by numerous countries around the world to varying degrees of success. It is, at this point, a policy only maintained by just several countries as most of the world has moved on to a “Living with COVID” strategy. China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are the major countries on that list.

Migrant Workers in Taiwan

My friend and contact, who will stay anonymous, willingly shared her story with me after expressing her anxiety over her treatment in Taiwan (full interview below). She is a Filipino migrant who has been living and working in Taiwan for five years at a factory that produces PCB boards for electronics. I know from conversations with her that she has a son back in the Philippines whom she is working hard to provide a better life. Despite all that has happened

to her in the past year, she still wants to express her appreciation for the work opportunity provided for her in Taiwan.

“I remember that lockdown, how they treated the Filipino migrants like we’re the reason why the virus spreads. We’re not allowed to go out unless we have to work, no decent food to cook and eat, we can’t go outside to buy what we need on a daily basis, (or) even not allowed (to go) to any convenience store if we’re hungry. Literally, we felt like prisoners,” This was her response when asked about her experience after the level three lockdown that began last May and lasted for three months.

When she was asked about how the factory enforced this level of lockdown, that was not so severe for Taiwanese, or even myself, she answered with, “They want us to follow whatever rules they have, if not, then we lose our job and (they) send us back home even without finishing the contract.”

Taiwan, at the moment that I am writing this article, is experiencing another rise in covid cases which is once again affecting migrant workers differently than the rest of Taiwan. “We have to follow their rules and not from the government. Now with the situation, the government didn’t announce the lockdown yet, but the company (wants) us to stay at the dormitory and we’re not allowed to go anywhere. I could say we’re back (to) being a prisoner again without the lockdown.” This is all happening while the rest of Taiwan is freely preparing for Chinese New Year while aware that they may face a level three lockdown again once everyone returns from their holiday. The screenshot below was shared with me by my friend. The regulations are specifically for migrant workers at the behest of Taiwan’s Ministry of Health.

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Here are her final thoughts on the message she would like the outside world to hear about what is happening in Taiwan:

“I appreciate their job, making this country covid free. They’ve done a good job controlling the virus not to spread anywhere, like contact tracing, QR codes and stuff.

But they have to accept the reality that this virus is part of our lives now, it will never go away. People are already vaccinated to protect ourselves and others (though) some of us (don’t) want to get vaccinated, but because I was thinking of (how) I can help everybody, I chose to get vaccinated myself.

There’s no reason for them to be scared every time there are new cases. What’s the point of the vaccine if they keep us inside our dormitory and (don’t) have the freedom to go out just like before covid?

This is the new normal, covid is already part of everyone’s life. We have to accept and live with it.”

The Story of Forced Quarantines

Once, less than a year ago, lockdowns in Taiwan were down at home for those of us with a residency. If you were exposed to covid, or just arrived in Taiwan, you were required to complete a 14-day at-home quarantine. They would track your phone and send agents to check on you and you would be administered PCR tests when the time came. This changed in June of 2021 around a month after Taiwan entered its level-3 lockdown. If you entered Taiwan after this point you were required to quarantine in a hotel at your own expense unless you could prove that you traveled for work, or because of the death of a relative. And even then, it was only about 50% compensation for a respectable hotel room with a

window. However, the real horror stories of these quarantines come from flight crews, pilots, their families, and those unfortunate individuals who ended up testing positive while in quarantine.

When I asked a wife of a pilot how her husband’s and her family’s lives have been affected by Zero-COVID this was her response:

“When the (break out) in the spring of 2021 occurred they began quarantining the pilots for 7 days after flights abroad and for two months my husband saw daylight only 5 to 7 days (in those months). They actually put his days off during quarantine days in his work schedule. When asked how a date in quarantine is considered a day off and the company only responded that they are required to give a certain amount of days off. Clearly, a day locked in quarantine should not be considered a day off and while this only occurred for two months, it happened.

If you are not going to work you are either going to quarantine, (this has been) their saying for almost 2 years now. They bus them directly to the airplane. Customs directly to the Hotel in the foreign country on a private bus. Give them one key card code for only entering one time so they are not allowed to leave. They are not allowed to open the door if anyone is on the other side when meals are delivered for example… no contact with anyone and when they leave they have a specific time they’re allowed to leave the room (to) get back on the bus and shuttle back to the airplane — where they fly back to Taiwan and directly enter quarantine.

Thankfully my husband hasn’t caught Covid or (been in contact) with anyone who has but those pilots and their families (who have), have been subject to extremely inhumane conditions. The pilots came back from Chicago Covid positive and all the pilots two weeks PRIOR (how does that make sense?!) were also sent to quarantine — with their families (including babies/children) in conditions so poor even the company recognized it and put together items to try and bring to them. Covered windows (some without windows), roaches, filthy toilets and more….

The pilots and families who catch or are exposed to Covid are punished harshly. It’s such a fearful environment.”

She also shared a story of her friend who spent 24-days in quarantine in Taiwan after what was most likely a false positive forced them to transfer to a hospital room. She’s pregnant and was with her toddler forced to live in disgusting conditions. Below are photos from her room, as well as screenshots of conversations and statements by this woman.

What Can be Learned

Taiwan, initially, handled COVID-19 well. But, underneath this success was a media blitz of fear. Adult students would tell me fantastical stories of bodies on the sidewalks of New York City. I had a high school student asked if there would be an America after covid. The doom of countries suffering from covid was on the minds of many Taiwanese. The misrepresentation of numbers in media also led many Taiwanese to feel reluctant to become vaccinated. This led to Taiwan’s shamefully low vaccine rate when COVID finally did break through in May 2021. Now, the Taiwanese are scrambling for their third shot. All it took was a shift in the media narrative, and Taiwanese were suddenly willing to take a vaccine salad before any studies existed to prove that it was safe.

These media narratives and much fear-mongering have encouraged the government to take radical steps, make already strict policies more severe. The at-home-quarantine worked. A few exceptions don’t make a rule. Yet, these exceptions led to the end of at-home-quarantine and the beginning of quarantines at government facilities, in hotels if you were lucky, and in-hospital rooms if you weren’t. Migrant workers didn’t need to be punished more severely than the rest of Taiwan. They were called, “selfish,” by their employers if they showed reluctance to receive the vaccine. These are the same employers that selfishly imprisoned them in their dorms so they could maintain their bottom line. Taiwan’s economy did increase during covid. It’s shameful how they did it.

I’m sure many are okay with what the government is doing because they don’t see the true price being paid. They have been protected. They are under the impression that their government has done well. They have slowed and at times completely stopped the spread of COVID. I’ve seen more coverage of the negative effects of the vaccines in Taiwan than coverage of the Zero-COVID policies. There are also Taiwanese who are not okay with the current situation. They ask, like my friend the migrant worker, what was the point of the vaccine if we are just going to do the same thing again? They perhaps have slightly better knowledge of what is going on and have a measure of contempt for their government and those that support policies like this.

TIt is easy to accept and carry on when life is comfortable. But the truth is, something terribly wrong is happening in Taiwan, and to there Zero-COVID policies.

By Tyler Golec

“…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Full Interviews below:

Filipino Migrant Factory Worker…

Q: What is your reason for and for how long have you lived in Taiwan?

A: Every Filipino wants to give their family a better life, main reason why we came here is to earn money and support our family. Been here for almost 5 years.

Q: What details are you willing to give about your factory job (e.g. size and number of employees)?

A: The company makes pcb boards for electronics. We handle machines to check the quality of the item.

Q: In May 2021 Taiwan instituted a level-3 lockdown. What did that mean for the lives of factory workers? What was your daily life like during that time?

A: I remember that lockdown how they treated the Filipino migrants like we’re the reason why the virus spreads. We’re not allowed to go out unless we have to work, no decent food to cook and eat, we can’t go outside to buy what we need on a daily basis even not allowed going to any convenience store if we’re hungry. Literally we felt like prisoners.

Q: How did the factories enforce their rules, that were not in effect for most other people in Taiwan? For example, did they use threats? And if so, what were the threats?

A: They want us to follow whatever rules they have, if not, then we lose our job and send us back home even without finishing the contract.

Q: Now, with Taiwan close to another situation like last May, what have the factories demanded of you? What freedoms have they taken away(again)?

A: They’re not demanding it at all, we have to follow their rules and not from the government. Now with the situation, the government didn’t announce the lockdown yet, but the company wants us to stay at the dormitory and we’re not allowed to go anywhere. I could say we’re back from being a prisoner again without the lockdown.

Q: What is the most important thing you would like the outside world to know about life inside of Taiwan for a migrant factory living through zero covid?

A: I appreciate their job making this country covid free. They’ve done a good job controlling the virus not to spread anywhere, like contact tracing, qr codes and stuff.

But they have to accept the reality that this virus is part of our lives now, it will never go away. People are already vaccinated to protect ourselves and other’s tho some of us doesn’t want to get vaccinated, but because i was thinking of what i can help for everybody, I chose to get vaccinated myself.

There’s no reason for them to be scared everytime there are new cases, what’s the point of the vaccine if they keep us inside our dormitory and doesn’t have the freedom to go out just like before covid?

This is the new normal, covid is already part of everyone’s life. We have to accept and live with it.

Wife of a Pilot…

Q: What information are you willing to give about yourself and your reason for living in Taiwan?

We moved here for my husband’s job.

Q: How has zero covid directly affected you and/or your family?

A: When the how to break in the spring of 2021 occurred, they began quarantining the pilots for 7 days after flights abroad and for two months my husband saw daylight only 5 to 7 days. They actually put his days off during quarantine days in his work schedule. When asked how a date in quarantine is considered a day off and the company only responded that they are required to give a certain amount of days off. Clearly, a day locked in quarantine should not be considered a day off and while this only occurred for two months, it happened.

Q: Your husband is a pilot, what types of conditions has he had to deal with?

A: If you are not going to work you are either going to quarantine is their saying for almost 2 years now. They bus them directly to the airplane. Custom directly to the Hotel in the foreign country on a private bus. Give them one key card code for only entering one time so they are not allowed to leave. They are not allowed to open the door if anyone is on the other side when meals are delivered for example… no contact with anyone and when they leave, they have a specific time they’re allowed to leave the room get back on the bus and shuttle back to the airplane- where they fly back to Taiwan and directly enter quarantine.

Thankfully my husband hasn’t caught Covid or phone with anyone who has but those pilots and their families have been subject to extremely inhumane conditions. The pilots came back from Chicago Covid positive and all the pilots two weeks PRIOR (how does that make sense?!) were also sent to quarantine- with their families (including babies/children) in conditions so poor even the company recognized it and put together items to try and bring to them. Covered windows (some without windows), roaches, filthy toilets and more….

The pilots and families who catch or are exposed to Covid are punished harshly. It’s such a fearful environment.

Q: Have you yourself had to quarantine and if so, what was it like?

A: We returned to my country over the summer so our children could play outdoors since Taiwan had all parks closed. When we returned, we had to quarantine in a hotel. We had to split up because of availability and we spent a small fortune ensuring a decent place for our children those 15 days.

Q: In your opinion, when did you start having issues with how Taiwan’s zero covid policy? Was it right away or, for example, after the May 2021 break out and the level 3 lockdown?

A: Correct. As soon as it occurred, they began 7-day quarantine for pilots and did not compensate that by then giving more days off at home. It’s been a constant fly/quarantine never home cycle. And when they are home (about 8 days a month these days) they are under self-health management and unable to go to any public space.

Q: What is the most important piece of information you would like the outside world to have, to better understand life inside Taiwan with their zero-covid policy?

A: Infringing on basic human rights on a few to protect the many comes at a cost and at what point is it too much?


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