Taiwan, billed as a COVID-19 success story as its economy boomed during the pandemic, is now faced with a record wave of infections as it relaxes restrictions that had kept outbreaks at bay.

Taiwan reported less than 15,000 locally transmitted cases in 2021. It now registers around 80,000 cases per day, a big reversal after its long-standing zero-COVID policy earned it international acclaim.

“We couldn’t achieve zero-COVID because it was too contagious,” former vice president and epidemiologist Chen Chien-jen said in a video released by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party on Sunday.

According to him, most cases in Taiwan are of the less severe Omicron variant, with more than 99.7 percent exhibiting mild or no symptoms.

“This is a crisis, but it is also an opportunity for us to quickly emerge from the shadow of COVID-19,” Chen said.

Despite an infection peak expected this week, the government is determined to end a policy that included largely closing its borders. It has relaxed restrictions, such as shortening mandatory quarantines, in what it refers to as the “new Taiwan model” – gradually living with the virus while avoiding a complete economic shutdown.

Unlike in other countries where new cases have overtaxed medical systems and disrupted daily life, Taiwan’s hospital beds designated for COVID-19 patients are 56% full. Shops, restaurants, and gyms remain open, and gatherings continue, with masks required.

Despite this, the island of 23.5 million people is losing 40 to 50 people per day, bringing the year-to-date total to 625. From 2020 to the end of 2021, there were 838 deaths.

This approach is very different to China, where strict measures to control outbreaks have caused the prolonged lockdown of Shanghai, a city of 25 million people, and movement restrictions in a number of cities, including Beijing.

Former Vice President Chen stated that Taiwan would reopen to tourists once 75-80% of the population had received a third vaccination shot. The current unemployment rate is 64%.

Taiwan is focusing on eliminating serious illness while reducing disruptions by allowing milder cases to see doctors online and receiving oral antiviral products delivered to their homes.

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