Ambulance sirens pierced the air. Firms slammed their doors shut. High-speed trains hurtled beyond town –banned from making stops inside the capital.
As a foreign correspondent in Taiwan, I watched in shock as Taipei battened down the hatches through a recent drill. After a year of virus-free bliss, long after the pandemic was declared globally, I was suddenly in one of the world’s last places to go toward lockdown.
International news headlines had praised and paraded Taiwan as Best in Show–a rare oasis of ordinary life amidst a sea of stay-at-home orders and overwhelmed morgues around the world. That’s because the island led the world in bolting its boundaries, employed contact tracing, and faked mass mask-wearing well until many places realized what a deadly virus that they had been coping with. Up till this year, Taiwan had managed to successfully prevent the endless waves of rigorous restrictions seen in other countries.
As cases jumped elsewhere in early 2020, figures hardly budged here. From my rooftop at Zhongshan District, I could see Taipei’s glorious Grand Hotel, which lit up its chambers in April to spell out”zero” in big capital letters, victoriously declaring Taiwan free of local Covid-19 cases. That winning series ultimately lasted eight months. Since the stretch of no fresh infections held, people first celebrated, and then did exactly the most human of items : got used to living life as normal, while the pandemic raged on anyplace else.
And so did I.
Taiwan’s bubble of normalcy
Taiwan was a island frozen in an Alice In Wonderland looking-glass moment. In parallel with the rest of the world’s tumult, I lived in strange tranquility in an alternative universe, where things weren’t as they ought to have been.
Restaurants remained open, packed with customers. Friends and families assembled without fear. Concerts and competitions continued without a hitch. In December, I conducted the Taipei Marathon, among the planet’s couple large-scale races to take place in person this past year. I huffed and puffed alongside 28,000 other runners, sans mask. Our droplets flew with no abandon.
Life was–dare I say–dull and business as usual. However, the feeling was surreal, such as being inside a snow globe when you peer out and see the rest of the world is a desert. Plus, for Taiwan, in China’s shadow and diplomatically isolated in the best of times, the sensation of being unhitched from the rest of the planet was perhaps achingly comfortable also.
It did not last, however. If Taiwan in 2020 was a success story, in 2021 it is yet another cautionary tale.
The Covid-19 outbreak in Taiwan
Recently, a cluster of infections broke out of a hotel housing quarantined pilots and began spreading throughout Taiwan’s biggest cities. In under 2 weeks, Taiwan went from less than 100 community-spread Covid-19 instances to greater than 11,000 (as of Friday). The authorities immediately imposed a Level 3 alert (out of 4), meaning all of businesses and public spaces had to shut, and parties were harshly restricted.
Outside my window, I watched cadres of military soldiers stand at attention, deployed to enter a different type of struggle: disinfecting my area, a burgeoning Covid-19 hotspot. Long lines snaked around pop-up testing centers along with a deafening silence filled the town roads, which have been buzzing with bustling audiences just weeks ago.
“We have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Taipei city mayor Ko Wen-je declared to all residents.
A roadmap for the pandemic
By that point, I had noticed the pandemic unfold all around the globe, though constantly as a spectator.
For the better part of a year, I had watched identical dress rehearsals of lockdowns across various nations, again and again. (Taiwan, in fact, had literal rehearsals.) The cast changed along with the staging varied, but the plot stayed the same. I could predict how this outbreak would play out also.
Less than an hour after fresh pandemic limitations were announced, panic buying ensued and grocery shelves became barren, just like anyplace else in the world. New “pandemic preparedness” displays sprouted up in storefronts, selling instant ramen and hand sanitizer. Meanwhile, toilet paper purchases were limited to one per family.
I phoned my friends and family back home in America, asking for their advice. I figured they had been through it all already and could offer words of comfort or consolation.
“This is when you’re going to hit your sourdough bread-making phase and then you’re going to pot a whole bunch of plants.” That was the advice distilled from a bunch of close faculty friends the day following pandemic restrictions were announced. They gave me a more detailed timeline of this rollercoaster of emotions I had been going to embark . “And later, you’ll go into a full mental breakdown,” said one of them.
In certain ways, understanding what was up beforehand made preparing for a lockdown more painful. It was not the uncertainty but, instead, the certainty that gnawed away at the frayed seams of my sanity. From afar, I had watched