Taiwan’s “COVID Refugees” Divided on Whether to Stay or Go

A large number overseas Taiwanese students, families, and professionals have returned to Taiwan over the past year in order to avoid the worst of the pandemic. Yet the recent surge of local COVID-19 cases has created a rift between those returnees who wish to stick it out in Taiwan and those who are ready to hit the road again.

While much of the world went into lockdown last year to stem the spread of COVID-19, Taiwan stood out as a haven for people overseas seeking refuge and safety from the pandemic. Despite its proximity to China, Taiwan was able to successfully guard itself against the virus thanks to the government’s early decision to close the borders to international travelers and its effective response measures, which for over a year kept infection numbers to only a few imported cases per day. Seeing the comparative normalcy in Taiwan, overseas Taiwanese began repatriating in droves and became known as Taiwan’s “COVID refugees.”

Lawrence Lin, the Taiwanese CEO of a software startup based in the U.S., halted his company’s operations there last year in order to return to Taiwan. “My original plan was to launch a new product in the U.S. and seek fundraising opportunities,” Lin says. “Meanwhile, I was considering living in California with my family and running my company remotely while starting a new branch office in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”

However, the deteriorating situation in California forced Lin to temporarily abandon his plans and escape to Taiwan, where people were still going about their daily lives. “Taiwan was just like another universe,” Lin recalls. “We booked our flight tickets as soon as possible.”

Rachel Chiang, a Taiwanese American student at the University of Southern California, left campus last March after her university notified all students to return home in order to reduce transmissions. After arriving back in Taiwan, Chiang planned to stay until this summer and take courses at the National Taiwan University, taking advantage of the near-COVID-free environment. 

Taiwan’s COVID success story took a huge hit, however, after a cluster infection among airline pilots quarantining at the Taoyuan Novotel Hotel spread out control, leading to a rapid rise in local cases across Taiwan. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on May 19 announced that it would raise the island’s pandemic alert to Level 3, tightening restrictions on gatherings and movement, as well as indoor dining. To date, Taiwan has confirmed more than 14,000 coronavirus cases, the vast majority of which were recorded after May 19.

The change caught many of the COVID refugees off-guard and unprepared. “People were very complacent with having zero local cases for a long time,” says Chiang. “It was definitely difficult to comprehend what was going on in the beginning.”

Lin shares Chiang’s sentiment about the sudden outbreak. “People in Taiwan underestimated the impact of COVID-19,” he says. We couldn’t accept the fact that Taiwan has to face the virus. Some of us even believed that the public health and medical system could prevent us from the pandemic entirely.”

However, opinion is divided among the COVID refugees regarding the severity of Taiwan’s outbreak and the government’s handling of the situation. “There is no crowd control and no social distancing at places like Costco,” says Lin.

Furthermore, he says, beyond a disposable facemask, many supermarket staffers do not wear adequate protective gear. Lin’s observations on the lack of social distancing and personal protection reduced his level of confidence in Taiwan’s ability to contain the outbreak from “a 9/10 to a 1/10…I told my wife that I felt the situation might become worse than before,” Lin added.

Guo Chen, a Taiwanese-American student at Tufts University currently staying in Taipei, says the severity of Taiwan’s current COVID-19 situation is at an “all-time high.” In addition to recognizing the devastating effects of the virus itself, Chen also highlighted the residual effects of business shutdowns and companies requiring their employees to take unpaid leave.

“Although it’s great to see many Taiwanese citizens following lockdown procedures, I feel like it’ll take a long time for us to return to the ‘COVID-free’ period without expanded vaccinations and testing,” he says. “The lack of [widespread] testing definitely made it hard for Taiwan to gauge the spread of the virus. Without vaccines, it’ll be even harder to achieve herd immunity.” Health experts have estimated that to effectively halt the spread of COVID-19, around 70% of a country’s population needs to be inoculated.

As of June 21, Taiwan has secured 4.86 million COVID-19 vaccine doses – which include the recent donation of 1.24 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Japan and 2.5 million Moderna doses from the U.S. – enough to cover around 8.8% of Taiwan’s total population of 24 million.

Other returnees are less concerned about the ongoing outbreak. “I don’t think Taiwan’s current COVID-19 situation is as severe as how the mainstream media has portrayed it,” says Justin Lin, a Taiwanese American student at the University of California, Berkeley who has been in Taipei since spring 2020. “Given its population size and density, Taiwan has done a nice job containing the spread of the virus compared to other countries [like Japan and the U.S.]. The situation is simply exaggerated by fear of uncertainty due to the sudden outbreak,” he adds.

Lin says he thinks that Taiwan should be able to handle the local outbreak. “Most cities and counties were quick to follow the CECC’s guidance and implement quarantine protocols while the government was also able to secure vaccine donations from Japan and the United States.”

Some returnees, including Mark Lai, a graduate student at National Tsinghua University who was previously in Germany, are optimistic about Taiwan’s ability to battle the virus, although with some reservations. “Without a doubt, the current near-lockdown situation is very severe,” says Lai. “Deaths are still rising, and testing could still be better. But seeing that the government is actively trying to secure vaccines and promoting domestic manufacturers makes me feel confident that this outbreak can be contained.” Lai plans to continue his research in Taiwan before returning to Germany.    

Nina Yang, a Taiwanese student studying at Temple University in Philadelphia also returned to Taipei last spring. To put Taiwan’s recent outbreak in perspective, she points to the state of Pennsylvania, which in mid-May was still recording on average around 1,500 cases per day. By comparison, she says, Taiwan’s situation “is really not that bad.”   

Although Yang regards Taiwan’s outbreak with a less of a sense of urgency, her parents are becoming more and more concerned about the shortage of vaccines in Taiwan. She and her family are currently reevaluating her original plan to remain in Taiwan until school resumes in the fall. “They [Yang’s parents] think that this outbreak might get worse as only limited vaccines are coming in. Going back to the U.S. early to get the vaccine might now be the best option,” she says.

Concerns about Taiwan’s lack of sufficient vaccines has also led startup CEO Lin to mull an early return to California. “The current situation in Taiwan is much more complicated than before,” he says. “I’m not sure if I can get vaccinated before September, which is over 100 days from now. That gives me enough time to prepare and go back.”

A growing number of overseas students and families are making the decision to fly back to the U.S. in order to get vaccinated. The spike in vaccine travelers has spurred Taiwan’s airlines to increase the frequency of their U.S.-bound flights. In early June, EVA Air more than doubled its Taipei-Los Angeles flights while China Airlines switched to larger commercial jets to accommodate the surge in demand.

Chen, the Tufts student, was registered for his first vaccine shot on June 1 in Taipei but later decided to cancel due to uncertainty regarding the possibility of receiving the second dose.

“Since I’m planning to head back to the States for the fall semester, my priority is to get vaccinated before school starts,” he says. “With the uncertainty of Taiwan’s vaccine supply, I’ve decided to [return to the U.S.] early to get vaccinated there.”