Light at the End of the Tunnel

If Taiwan needed any indication of who its real friends are, it has been handed plenty of evidence over the past two months. As the island grappled with a shortage of COVID-19 vaccines and the human and economic costs of a local outbreak that began in mid-May, several like-minded countries have stepped in to help with gestures of kindness and support.

While large donations of vaccines from Japan and the U.S. may have come as little surprise to those who follow Taiwan’s current affairs – after all, those two countries have been prominent backers of Taiwan for decades – more intriguing was the decision first of small Baltic nation Lithuania to donate 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to Taiwan in late June. Central European republic Slovakia followed last month with a pledge to provide a further 10,000 doses.

While modest, the moves by these two EU member countries have significant symbolic value. Both cited Taiwan’s donations of face masks early in the pandemic last year, an indication that the island’s generosity and willingness to help those struggling to contain the coronavirus at that time had paid off. It was especially meaningful given China’s ongoing attempts to thwart Taiwan’s access to sufficient vaccines.

Take for example Taiwan’s experience trying to purchase vaccines directly from BioNTech earlier this year. It was revealed in May that the deal fell through when the German biotechnology company reportedly raised a concern about wording in the Chinese-language press release that referred to Taiwan as a country. Although Taiwan’s government quickly agreed to change the text, BioNTech informed them a week later that the deal would be delayed, citing a global shortage of vaccines and adjusted timeline for distribution. While vaccine makers have indeed had to deal with deficits in raw materials and equipment, this seemed to be a weak excuse to back out of an agreement that had been under negotiation for months.

To make up for the loss, Taiwan has since had to fall back on a convoluted arrangement in which a Foxconn-affiliated charity foundation, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), and Taiwanese Buddhist NGO Tzu Chi have each bought a respective five million doses of the BioNTech vaccine through the company’s distributor in China, Fosun Pharma. Once received, they will donate the vaccines to the government.

Taiwan being forced to secure life-saving vaccines through private sector and civil society actors is a perfect illustration of the tough position the island consistently finds itself in, thanks to its externally imposed isolation and the political obstacles it faces as a result.

Despite these challenges, however, Taiwan continues to demonstrate its tenacity and resilience. Within a short period, local COVID-19 case numbers fell from a daily high of 500-600 down to between 15 and 30 per day, due in large part to swift action by the government, which imposed economically burdensome but effective pandemic restrictions.

Furthermore, the combination of recent vaccine donations, the BioNTech purchases through Fosun, and the approved and pending emergency use authorization of vaccines produced by domestic firms Medigen and United Biologic Inc. put Taiwan in much better standing inoculate a large part of its population this year. In fact, the rate of Taiwan residents who received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine jumped from around 3% in mid-June to 25% in late July, showing that with a little help from friends, even the biggest hurdles can be overcome.

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