EDITORIAL: Travel bubbles and vaccine rollouts

Taiwan and Palau have been discussing a COVID-19 travel bubble, with officials on Tuesday saying that details might be worked out as soon as this month.

The proposal introduces a dilemma: For a recreational travel bubble to make sense, there cannot be a quarantine at either end of the journey, but a lack of quarantine introduces risk.

Taiwan and Palau have weathered the pandemic quite well, but neither is immune to the spread of the virus. Taiwanese sailors visiting Palau in March last year were found to have been infected with the disease prior to their arrival, but thankfully did not spread the disease to that country.

In January, a cluster of infections developed at a hospital in Taoyuan after a doctor was infected. There have been numerous cases of people breaking quarantine in Taiwan, with one notable case involving a foreign pilot who infected a local woman.

As people are still entering Taiwan on a regular basis — mostly nationals returning from overseas, but also people arriving for work or humanitarian purposes — there will be a risk as long as the pandemic lasts.

Chinese-language comments on a Central News Agency Facebook post about the proposed travel bubble reflect public concern. One user wrote: “Is it truly safe?” Another wrote: “That guy who said ‘I’ll be the first to be vaccinated, if nobody else dares to’ — let him be the first to fly” to Palau, referring to a comment Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) made about the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Taiwanese love to travel — the nation recorded 17.1 million outbound trips in 2019 — but they have happily transitioned to domestic travel since the start of the pandemic. The number of domestic travelers was so high last summer that the outlying islands reported being overwhelmed by the sudden influx, with stores being stripped of stock, and hotels and other accommodation inundated with bookings.

With domestic travel options ranging from mountain trails to tropical beaches, and modern cities to farms and rural vistas, there is plenty to keep travel bugs busy in the short term, so is the lure of international travel to a tropical island nation strong enough for Taiwanese to overlook the risks? That remains to be seen, but perhaps a widespread vaccine rollout in both nations would make travel risks negligible.

Taipei’s Shin-Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital is reportedly planning to help Palau with its vaccination program to raise its vaccination rate to 50 percent by the end of next month.

Taiwan has also begun preparations for the inoculation of frontline workers, but Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) on Friday last week said that the public should lower its expectations of what a widespread rollout of vaccines would mean.

Even once the general public have been vaccinated, travel restrictions are likely to remain until next year at least, he said.

However, opening travel bubbles with nations that have been minimally affected, including Palau, Australia and New Zealand, might make sense at this point.

For now, even Australia and New Zealand have suspended their own plans for a travel bubble after a resurgence of the virus. The two nations have been vigilant in their pandemic measures, but their experiences have shown that the disease can strike quickly if a country lets its guard down for even a moment.

Once travel resumes, Palau is a logical first choice, as it is an ally and one of Taiwan’s staunchest supporters. Moreover, dependable travel options would make it easier for Palauans to receive medical aid in Taiwan.

Hopefully, travel can resume once more people are vaccinated, thereby lowering the risk for people in both countries.

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