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-seven sailors on a navy supply vessel were confirmed to have the virus shortly after it returned from a visit to Palau earlier this month. Taiwan’s defense minister apologized Tuesday night and said he was willing to resign if requested to do so by the island’s president, Tsai Ing-wen.
Tsai apologized at a briefing Wednesday, saying Taiwan is investigating the outbreak on the 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 only visited 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 totaling just 425.
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.
“This is the biggest cluster infection in Taiwan so far,” Chan Chang-chuan, dean of the College of Public Health at National Taiwan University, said Wednesday. “It’s regrettable that Taiwan paid little attention to this part while it has done extraordinarily well in other areas.”
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.”
The Taiwan Navy cluster comes as the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which operates in the region, has been under intense scrutiny over its handling of the coronavirus. 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.
Grant Newsham, a retired U.S. Marine Corp officer and senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, warned that Taiwan’s leadership shouldn’t 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 U.S. 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.”
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