Two Asian countries that for different reasons (and in different ways) seemed to have so far kept the coronavirus epidemic at bay are now grappling with a increase in cases on their territory and have decided on widespread restrictions: it is about Japan is Taiwan.
Peak in the fourth wave
The Japan (among internal disputes) is struggling to dispute the Olympic Games safely, but is in the thick of it fourth wave, by far the worst of all: in early March, the country recorded about 1,000 new cases a day, now nearly 6,000, with health officials reporting an increasing number of variants, including 26 belonging to the strain first detected in India. Japan has recorded more than 620,000 infections (out of 126 million inhabitants) and 10,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, but now the government is being criticized for not canceling the Olympics permanently and for very slow vaccination campaign which led to the approval of one drug, Pfizer, and immunization (with one dose) of only 3.18% of the population (in Italy we are almost 30%).
The restrictions and the vaccination campaign
So on Friday the prime minister Yoshihide Suga has further expanded it state of emergency which will last until the end of May: 6 to 9 areas have been reached, including Tokyo, Hokkaido, Hiroshima, Osaka and Okayama. People are asked to stay at home except to run essential errands, especially after 8pm, and must refrain from traveling outside their prefectures. Bars, karaoke rooms and most entertainment facilities will be closed and restaurants are required not to serve alcohol. The government imposed two other previous states of emergency during the pandemic, much “milder” than the total blockades seen in many countries. In the area of Osaka, now the most affected by Covid, the hospitals are full: many are waiting at home or in hotels with oxygen and more than a dozen patients have died without getting a bed in the hospital. The coronavirus in Japan is actually only treated in public or university hospitals.
Taro Kono, the minister in charge of the vaccination campaign, attributed the delay in immunization to the country’s strict drug approval system.
To date, Pfizer-BioNtech’s vaccine is the only one approved by health authorities, and the country largely depends on supplies from European plants. However, the announcement today is that Japan has signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to supply another 50 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine by September. And on May 20, it will also authorize Moderna and AstraZeneca with which the executive has signed, respectively, supply contracts for 50 million doses and 60 million.
Comparisons to three
Although the cases are increasing, both in Japan and in Taiwan we are talking about very low numbers: to make a comparison with Italy, the daily average of new cases in a week is 6,630 in Italy and 5,552 in Japan.
Taiwan is just 11. If we compare this number to the size of the population we have 127.53 weekly average cases per million people in Italy, 51.08 in Japan and 0.67 in Taiwan.
The ratio of positives to swabs is 1.23% in Italy, 0.80% in Japan and 1.40% in Taiwan.
Finally, the deaths: the peak of the third Italian wave reached 477 deaths in April 2021, the Japanese peak has just been reached in May with 97 deaths (higher in this fourth wave than in the others).
In all, in Italy there were almost 124,000 deaths, in Japan we are just over 11,000 and in Taiwan only 12. The total cases in a population of about 24 million people were 1,290. Precisely this result makes the Chinese island an absolute exception.
In Taiwan, only 1,290 total cases, but 180 in a day in May
The island never went into lockdown and people have been used to living almost normal lives. This is why the denunciation of the increase in infections and the relative tightening of limitations is surprising.
The island closed immediately and applied rigorously contact tracing and testing and the strict quarantines for the very few travelers arriving. Temperature checks and hand sanitation have always been common and masks required early on in many public places (although not in schools).
Since this week, however, the restrictions in Taipei have reached their highest level since the start of the pandemic after the report of a daily record of 180 new infections broadcast locally. The government has raised the restrictions in the city to level 3 out of 4 and although it is not a total blockade, some residents have gone to supermarkets to stock up on food, toilet paper and other essential products.
Restrictions include banning indoor gatherings of more than 5 people, outdoor gatherings of 10 and the obligation to wear masks outdoors for the first time.
Many public entertainment venues around the island will be closed (not offices, schools or restaurants). Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je urged people to stay home as long as possible, adding that schools should activate online teaching.
Wave from airlines, hardly any vaccinated
The increase in cases appears to have started in late April starting in a group of airline workers. Taiwan’s borders have mostly been closed to foreign visitors since last spring, but highly skilled non-Taiwanese workers have been admitted under a program called the ‘golden card’, which the government aggressively promoted during the pandemic. Since January 31 of last year, more than 1,600 gold cards have been issued, more than four times compared to 2019 and a sort of “Reverse brain drain”.
On the other hand, there are very few vaccinated people on the island: 0.14% of the population, first of all because there was never any need, but also because the authorities did not choose the Chinese vaccine and ordered millions of doses from Moderna and AstraZeneca, but they have received very few.
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May 15, 2021 (change May 15, 2021 | 20:03)
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