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Taiwan is moving away from ‘zero-covid.’ That’s harder than it seems.

When people see the virus as a national threat, they expect strict government policies to remain in place

- June 1, 2022

Until the recent omicron wave, “zero-covid” policies in China and Taiwan had proved largely successful in keeping the coronavirus at bay. In both places, the government consolidated a zero-covid strategy by “securitizing” the virus, treating it as an existential threat. The “war with covid” rallied people in China and Taiwan to be highly supportive of zero-covid measures such as border controls and mandatory quarantines.

Taiwan recently began to shift its pandemic approach. While China is doubling down on zero-covid policies, Taiwan has now decided to adopt a “living with the virus” mentality.

After more than two years of casting the virus as a threat, our recent survey results from Taiwan suggest that it might not be that easy to “de-securitize” the virus and shift the mentality of “waging war” against the covid-19 virus within a short period.

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Taiwan avoided the early pandemic

As the coronavirus spread around the globe in 2020, Taiwan managed to maintain low fatality and infection rates, thanks in large measure to mandatory quarantines and mask-wearing. Taiwan did not experience its first covid-19 outbreak until May 2021, then contained that outbreak within two months.

The omicron variant hit Taiwan in April. Though cumulative confirmed cases per million people remain significantly lower than elsewhere in the world, the current outbreak marks Taiwan’s most serious brush with covid-19. Currently, 81 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated and 64 percent have received a booster shot.

When cases began to edge up in early April, Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing-wen, announced that her government would move away from zero-covid tactics. Quarantines are now shorter, and shops and businesses remain open — though masks are still required in many locations. In recent weeks, Taiwan’s new reported cases topped previous records every few days, with the peak expected in late May.

Amid the rising covid cases and new policy direction, we fielded an online opt-in survey through Rakuten Insight in early May. We drew from a sample of 1,191 adults ages 18 and above in Taiwan to find out if people are ready for the “new normal.” Though not a representative poll, the findings offer a snapshot of attitudes on covid-19.

We used gender and age quotas, though the survey sample shows variations on key demographic attributes vs. Taiwan as a whole. Around 51 percent of the respondents are male; 32 percent of respondents report education levels equal to or lower than high school/vocational school; and 12 percent of respondents are aged 65 and above.

Many see covid-19 as a national security threat

In our survey, 68 percent of respondents agree with the statement that “COVID-19 is a national security threat.” A lower figure (56 percent) perceives “the risk of getting COVID in the next 3 months” as being high for them personally. Two years of “securitizing” the coronavirus may have made personal risk perceptions about it different from how people perceive it to be a collective security threat.

Risk perception and threat perception are only weakly correlated in our sample: 42 percent of respondents are in the “high [security] threat, high [personal] risk” group; 26 percent in the “high threat, low risk” group; 14 percent in the “low threat, high risk” group, and 18 percent in the “low threat, low risk” group.

People in the second category, the “high threat, low risk” group, perceive very manageable coronavirus risks individually — but also believe that covid-19 presents a collective threat to Taiwan’s security. Respondents age 65 or older, or with those lower educational attainments, are more likely to be in this group, we found.

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The covid threat drove support for government action

Whether people view the coronavirus as a security threat may also predict how the public will take to Taiwan’s “new normal,” coexisting with the virus.

The survey results reveal that people who see the virus as a strong security threat to Taiwan are more disapproving of the government’s direction in handling the pandemic. And a poll this week found that 70 percent of Taiwanese wanted the government to retain stricter border control policies.

These findings suggest that it’s possible that the government in Taiwan may have underestimated how “securitized” people feel. People who still consider the virus a security threat may now feel that the government is incapable of protecting them.

Did partisanship affect the results?

In our survey, a subset of respondents (600 in all) was asked about their political affiliation and vaccination status. We found partisanship to be a strong predictor of whether respondents saw the virus as a current security threat.

Among supporters of the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), significantly fewer people saw the virus as a security threat, compared with respondents who supported the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT). Interestingly, DPP and KMT supporters show no significant differences with regard to their risk of contracting the virus. They differ only in the extent to which they view the coronavirus as a security threat.

However, vaccine status appears to have little impact on threat perception. In our survey, 80 percent of respondents report being fully vaccinated, with a booster shot. Among this group, 64 percent agree that the coronavirus is a security threat, while 67 percent of those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated also agree with the statement.

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Does “securitization” of the covid-19 virus have a downside?

Taiwan’s zero-covid stance encouraged the public to demand and support the government’s exceptional measures to protect people from the “threat.” However, virus securitization may come with a price. When the population views covid-19 as a security threat, that enables the government to call for unity in the fight against covid — but the government may then find it difficult to “de-securitize” the virus swiftly later on.

After such a long period of treating the coronavirus as an existential threat, it may take time to persuade people that it’s now safe to coexist with the virus. Countries around the world — and the World Health Organization — increasingly view zero-covid strategies as economically and politically unsustainable. But having “securitized” the fight against covid, how to convince people to start resuming life as it used to be could become a new political dilemma.

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Wei-Ting Yen is assistant professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College.

Li-Yin Liu is assistant professor of political science at University of Dayton.