Border Policies Require Flexibility, Compassion

As with every other difficult situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic so far, Taiwan handled its most severe outbreak of local infections this past summer admirably. When case numbers spiked in May and June, restrictions were quickly tightened. Although economically and socially burdensome, the strict new regime was effective in rapidly containing the outbreak, thanks in large part to the lockstep efforts of government, industry, and the public.

As local case numbers have more or less completely subsided and Taiwan’s vaccination rate continues to steadily rise – 70% of Taiwan residents have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, while around 30% are fully vaccinated – the government has begun to gradually ease restrictions on daily life. Citizens can now go maskless in certain situations, capacity limits have been raised at indoor and outdoor venues, and restaurants have mostly resumed normal business operations.

Yet health authorities are still reluctant to relax border controls, some of which greatly impact the operations of both local and international businesses and the potential for greater foreign investment in Taiwan. Currently, non-resident foreign nationals can enter Taiwan only for emergency or humanitarian reasons, and even then their application must be approved in advance by the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). Foreign companies wishing to bring employees to Taiwan from abroad must apply on a case-by-case basis.

CECC commander Chen Shih-chung has stated that Taiwan cannot afford to consider lifting its border restrictions until at least 60% of the population has received two doses of the vaccine. Nevertheless, out of compassion for families split apart by the pandemic, the government has begun to allow entry for the non-resident family members of Taiwanese. Unfortunately, that courtesy is not extended to dependents of Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) holders, who are still prevented from entering Taiwan.

This situation has begun receiving greater attention, especially after Taiwan’s new government-funded streaming news and entertainment platform, Taiwan+, aired a segment in October regarding a French national working as an electrical engineer in Taiwan who has been unable to bring his Lithuanian wife to the island due to the current restrictions. The engineer described the sadness he and his wife felt being kept apart by a formality and said he might consider going back to Europe to be with her, despite wanting to stay in Taiwan.

He is not alone in having to make this difficult decision, a reality that could be damaging to Taiwan in the long run. A policy that keeps families separated for an extended period of time could cause foreign professionals to leave Taiwan, negatively affecting its economy and international connectivity.

Beyond the humanitarian implications of Taiwan’s border restrictions, the lack of a standard procedure for issuing visas for employees of foreign companies during this time has resulted in an application logjam. At present, hundreds of foreign employees from multinational companies in Taiwan are waiting for short-term or long-term visas to be issued. Their numbers grow daily.

Extraordinary measures were undoubtedly necessary to rein in the COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan and keep people safe. However, Taiwan’s relative return to normality in recent months may warrant a closer look at how border policies affect businesses and individuals.

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