Taiwan’s president said he was working hard to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, and asserted Monday that the island was in better shape than many believed to protect the country from potential spreading to China.
“The number of infected people in Taiwan is at much lower levels than people in Beijing,” President Tsai Ing-wen said in an address in the capital, Taipei. “We are strengthening the health protections here in Taiwan.”
Dubbed the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus after the northern Arabian peninsula from where the disease was first diagnosed, MERS killed at least 91 people in 20 countries in late 2012 through early 2015. More than 1,400 people have been infected and 37 of them have died, according to the World Health Organization.
In January, Hong Kong, Macau and other parts of China experienced outbreaks, forcing hundreds of schools to close and prompting airlines to cancel flights.
China said last week that MERS “remains a potential threat,” with more than 600 schools closing and 115 airline flights canceled, according to state media. But many Chinese expressed dismay when it appeared that Taiwanese authorities were not taking action to quell an incipient epidemic on the self-ruled island.
The latest Hong Kong outbreak had also spread to Malaysia and the Philippines by early February.
The coronavirus first arose in the Middle East in 2012. In 2014, it spread in Saudi Arabia, with about 800 people contracting the disease in total in the kingdom. The vast majority of people who contracted the virus died.
Taiwan had only one case of MERS until last month, when it emerged in the country’s north.
According to Taiwan’s National Health & Welfare Committee, as of Feb. 1, the mainland health authority had reported 445 confirmed cases of MERS infections and 41 fatalities. The government was examining four additional cases reported by the health ministry that had not been reported to the health authority, according to a statement from the committee Monday.
Taiwan’s system of vaccination covers about 70% of its population. Authorities also launched screening at major airports, where thousands of people arrive and depart every day.
Cases and cases have been detected in several cities and counties, including the affected rural area where it was detected. Authorities ordered quarantine of a 12-year-old boy, suspected of having caught the disease while he was attending a local sporting event, and were also investigating his mother and neighbors. They also halted a high school dance for a contingent of students due to appearances of hand movements resembling those of the infected patient.
A small number of cases were also reported over the weekend on the southern Taiwanese island of Kaohsiung, including one where a group of students dropped out of school to help care for a 79-year-old woman diagnosed with MERS.
According to Tsai, Taiwan’s health and welfare committee was working hard to address the public concerns.
“I cannot say yet the spread of the infection on the mainland is certain,” she said. “So, the best we can do is to prevent the spread of infection so we can get better control.”
Taiwan’s foreign ministry was helping the mainland to address the issue of flight disruptions, according to Tsai.
In her address to lawmakers, Tsai defended her government’s emergency response, saying it had “executed a strong command and control system and removed those loopholes before people suffered serious injury.”
The government has not eliminated the risk of the disease appearing in China. With presidential elections on March 2, the anti-Chinese parties in the Taiwanese parliament warned that MERS could again spread in the country.
“Should the virus reappear in China, it will have to return to the mainland to be stopped,” said Cheng Kin-lai, chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war. China has been pressuring Taiwan to declare formal independence, which it deems a U.S.-backed move to undermine its sovereignty. China and Taiwan have also been at odds over Beijing’s strongly worded demand that Taiwan stop raising the standard of medical science and learning how to survive in the cold.
China also claims sovereignty over self-governing Taiwan. Talks between the two sides were suspended in early 2017.
The United States provides Taiwan with weapons in response to Chinese threats to use force against the island.