Marginalized groups may be the Achilles’ heel in Taiwan’s pandemic control

Marginalized groups may be the Achilles heel in Taiwan s pandemic control

A red-light district in Taipei is the center of an unprecedented coronavirus outbreak in Taiwan, which reported nearly 400 local cases in the past two days.

Out of 180 and 206 new COVID-19 cases reported on Saturday and Sunday respectively, 43 and 58 were from Wanhua, one of Taipei’s oldest districts. 14 cases were linked to tea shops in the district and 172 hostess bars and tea parlors have since been closed for disinfection.

There are concerns that the “invisible population” in the district, including rough sleepers, undocumented immigrants and other marginalized groups who are reluctant to seek medical help, may present a loophole in Taiwan’s infection control.

Since the cluster was first reported last Friday, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je has imposed mandatory coronavirus tests on five groups, including workers and customers of tea parlors, people who sought medical help for fever or other respiratory symptoms in the area, local citizens, travelers and their spouses, which have been admitted to hospital for relevant symptoms.

On Sunday, the Taiwanese army deployed dozens of soldiers from the chemical warfare unit and two heavy duty trucks to disinfect the area. Working with the Environmental Protection Department, the troops spray the area with diluted bleach.

Chen Hsiu-hsi, vice dean of National Taiwan University’s Department of Public Health, attributed the latest outbreak to a new variant of the coronavirus, which is “stronger and more transmissible.” As Wanhua district is also a transportation hub, it is easier for the virus to spread.

“The authorities have raised COVID-19 restrictions to level 3, which will quickly end the latest wave of transmission,” said Chen.

It is not sufficient to put one district under lockdown and the entire country has to be placed under social distancing rules, he added. “If you target only one city, there could be another outbreak in another city. It would be a game of whac-a-mole,” he said.

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