Taiwan's navy ship outbreak threatens its coronavirus success

Soldiers disinfect the Panshi supply ship in Kaohsiung, Taiwa, on April 19, 2020.
Soldiers disinfect the Panshi supply ship in Kaohsiung, Taiwa, on April 19, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI (BLOOMBERG) - A coronavirus outbreak on one of Taiwan's navy ships has raised concerns that a re-infection could threaten one of the world's success stories in the fight against the pandemic.

Twenty-eight sailors on a navy supply ship were confirmed to have the virus shortly after it returned from a visit to Palau earlier this month. Taiwan's defence minister apologised on Tuesday night (April 21) and said he was willing to resign if requested to do so by the island's president Ms Tsai Ing-wen.

Ms Tsai apologised at a briefing on Wednesday, saying Taiwan is investigating the outbreak on the navy ship, and that the president should take responsibility. She said the navy ship was on an annual routine drill and "special" mission, which she didn't specify, and visited only Palau.

The apologies come amid growing concern the military mishandled the outbreak after 744 personnel from three ships that visited the Pacific island nation were allowed to disembark after arriving back in Taiwan on April 9. Health officials first reported infections from the ship last week.

The incident could blemish what has otherwise been a success story in containing the virus, which has infected more than 2.5 million people worldwide. Taiwan has managed to keep its outbreak largely under control, with businesses and schools remaining open and the number of confirmed infections totalling just 426.

The democratically run island had reported no new infections for three days last week, raising hopes it was close to overcoming the worst of the virus.

Biggest cluster

"This is the biggest cluster infection in Taiwan so far," Dr Chan Chang-chuan, dean of the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University, said on Wednesday. "It's regrettable that Taiwan paid little attention to this part while it has done extraordinarily well in other areas."

Dr Chan said Taiwan's prowess at locating suspected cases quickly using mobile phones and other technology pointed to it being able to limit the spread in the broader community.

Still, "it's concerning that it could trigger a second wave on infections in Taiwan", he said. "So we urge the government to test as many suspected cases as possible."

 
 
 
 

Health officials confirmed a 28th infection from the naval vessel on Wednesday, a student who had previously tested negative for the virus.

The Taiwan navy cluster comes as the US Pacific Fleet, which operates in the region, has been under intense scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus. Captain Brett Crozier, captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, was dismissed for writing a memo warning the service about the potentially dire situation aboard the carrier.

As it battled the pandemic, Taiwan was also forced to scramble its navy to monitor the movements of China's Liaoning aircraft carrier group, which conducted exercises around the island earlier this month. Beijing considers the island part of its territory, a claim Taiwan's government rejects.

Mr Grant Newsham, a retired US marine officer and senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, warned that Taiwan's leadership should not overreact to the outbreak.

"When you've got the People's Liberation Army intimidating you - and threatening even more than normal, it's important to show you're ready and able to fight. Perceptions matter," he said.

"Given the problems facing the US Navy in the region - arguably as a result of overreacting to the virus - it's especially important that the People's Republic of China doesn't think the timing is right to 'make a move'."