Health Minister gains fans even as Taiwan grapples with evacuation quandary, new coronavirus cases

Taiwan's Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung has been praised by citizens for his hands-on approach in supervising the quarantine procedures and the efforts to speed up the evacuation. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM FACEBOOK

TAIPEI - As the authorities try to shape plans for future evacuations of Taiwanese stranded in coronavirus-hit Wuhan, an unlikely star emerged amid the tumult of the island government's disease prevention work.

Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung has been praised by citizens for his hands-on approach in supervising the quarantine procedures and the efforts to speed up the evacuation, as well as the daily press conference he held to brief citizens on coronavirus updates.

Local media outlets tallied up Mr Chen's schedules in the past week and deduced that he had gone more than 48 hours without sleep by Wednesday (Feb 5), having held press conferences and accompanied the evacuees to their respective quarantine centres in a protective suit.

Taiwan's first evacuation endeavour on Monday (Feb 3) had been fraught with uncertainties from the start, beginning with over a week of stonewalling by Beijing regarding its evacuation request.

The arrival of the group on Monday brought Taiwan its 11th confirmed case of the coronavirus which, together with two more cases on Thursday (Feb 6) of persons who had returned from Wuhan via Dalian and Shenzhen, puts the island's tally at 13.

Local media reported that, contrary to demands made by Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, the Chinese authorities had allowed people with symptoms to board the flight. This included its 11th coronavirus case: a 50-year-old man who was detected with a fever upon his arrival.

Rumours also ensued that some who were meant to be on that first chartered flight - children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses - had been left off the final boarding list, and in their place were a number of Chinese spouses of some evacuees.

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) said on Wednesday that any plans to evacuate Taiwanese citizens from Wuhan are currently on hold due to controversies surrounding the first evacuation attempt.

"Because of the confirmed case in the first group of returnees, both China and Taiwan have to raise the bar for disease prevention measures, especially because the first list of returnees didn't turn out according to our initial negotiations (with China)," said MAC Minister Chen Ming-tong on Wednesday, adding that there would be no charter flights in the next two days.

The Taiwan Centres for Disease Control later confirmed the rumours saying that there were three more evacuees than the 244 China had initially listed, and among the group were many who were not Taiwanese.

In the wake of the furore over these developments, citizens have rallied around their Health Minister.

A hashtag calling for Mr Chen to take a break has gone viral, especially after he was seen dabbing away tears at a press conference on Tuesday as he confirmed Taiwan's 11th confirmed case.

Netizens flocked to the ministry's Facebook page to comment that Mr Chen ought to rest. Under a post about a hotline number people can call to help the homeless and the elderly on cold days, a netizen commented: "1957 (the hotline number), the Minister needs help. He needs to sleep well, and the cold day will be better."

Another wrote, "We may not have the WHO, but we have Minister Chen and the amazing group of ministry officials to keep Taiwan safe."

"Minister Shih-chung, please get a good night's sleep so you will be energised! Please keep yourself warm in the cold weather!" commented yet another.

Even as Taiwan discharged its first coronavirus patient from hospital on Thursday, its authorities rolled out a new rationing plan for medical-grade face masks on Thursday, which requires citizens to use their National Health Insurance cards to purchase two masks a week, to prevent people from stripping pharmacies and drugstores of their stock.

Previously, Premier Su Tseng-chang had on Jan 23 announced a halt in mask exports and later limiting purchases to three masks per person for the stock the government had supplied convenience stores and drugstores. Still, people have been complaining about having to get up early to line up for masks and their local pharmacies running out of masks within minutes of opening.

To combat this, a Taiwanese software engineer in his 30s made an interactive map that tracked the mask stock in each drugstore and convenience store.

Mr Howard Wu said he had seen many people sigh in exasperation after store clerks announced that the masks were sold out for the day, having lined up for hours.

As his friends and family began sharing updates on which stores had masks in stock and which did not, Mr Wu thought: "We can save people a lot of time by sharing information like this."

It took him seven hours to build the map, which he launched on Sunday (Feb 2) with a call for people to pool information to keep it updated in real time.

The government followed up with a promise to keep people in the loop. Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang announced on Tuesday (Feb 4) that pharmacies have agreed to send stock updates to the government. From Thursday morning, people were able to check the number of masks their local pharmacies currently have in stock on the Ministry of Health and Welfare's website.

Hospitals have also become creative in combating the spread of the virus. Two hospitals in Changhua City have launched "prescription drive-throughs", which helps customers avoid stepping foot into the hospital and potentially catching any bugs. Instead, hospital guards are dispatched to collect prescriptions from customers, who remain in their cars.

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