Taiwan panic a jab-hesitancy warning

Editorial | Mary Ma 18 May 2021

Hongkongers had better learn quickly from the lesson unfolding in Taiwan: very few vaccinated and a strict lockdown imposed.

Hong Kong's "window of mercy" won't be open forever.

When it's safe to get vaccinated against Covid in an orderly environment, do so. Don't leave it too late for the stark fact to sink in that the coronavirus threat is always lurking.

If more Taiwanese had vaccinated, they would not now be in a state of panic.

Yesterday, the daily count of new Covid cases hit a new record in Taiwan. Of the 335 new cases confirmed , 333 were locally acquired and only two were imported. Though the number is not high in relation to its 23 million population, Taiwanese are clearly nervous.

The fiasco confronting Taiwan has been two-fold.

For one, it is acutely short of vaccines. Except for 315,000 AstraZeneca doses acquired mainly through the World Health Organization-led Covax initiative, the shipment of the rest of its orders are not due to start until next month.

But better keep fingers crossed because this is on the assumption that the manufacturers are able to deliver the vaccines on time.

This is uncertain as a number of places are reporting unexpected spikes. For example, Singapore is stepping up its social distancing restrictions after nearly 50 new cases were confirmed on Sunday, which marked the country's highest daily count since September.

Earlier, Beijing offered to supply mainland-developed vaccines to Taiwan. The olive branch was turned down, with Taipei insisting it was barred by local laws from accepting vaccines from the mainland.

There is little doubt that the current resurgence in cases will split the already polarized political circles in Taipei.

Pro-Beijing politicians from the Kuomintang party have started playing up the vaccine shortage to press President Tsai Ing-wen to accept Sinopharm jabs offered by Beijing.

It is unlikely that Taipei will give in.

According to Forbes, Taiwan has ordered 20 million doses - including 4.76 million via Covax, 10 million from AstraZeneca and five million direct from the German laboratory BioNTech.

But Taiwanese Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said in February that the BioNTech deal had been put on hold due to opposition from the company's Chinese partner, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical, which has obtained the exclusive right to supply BioNTech in the greater China region, including Taiwan.

Taiwan is pinning its hopes on US-made Moderna - secured earlier with the help of Washington - being delivered on time before the end of June.

According to Forbes, Taipei will start deploying its domestically developed vaccines next month. If the supplies do arrive on time, Taiwan's vaccine supply will improve in June.

But there remains another, bigger, hurdle to overcome: people's hesitancy.

Like Hongkongers, Taiwanese are reluctant to get vaccinated. Of the 300,000-plus AstraZeneca doses received, only about 186,000 have been administered to date.

The take-up rate is less than 1 percent of the population. Hong Kong has fared much better.

Increased vaccine supply will not solve the problem unless people drop their hesitancy.

Hopefully, the panic will help end it.

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