Pilot Infection Sparks Epidemic Storm: Mend the Policy Loopholes First
United Daily News Editorial, May 2, 2021
The cluster infection of the China Airlines pilots is spreading to 10 pilots, further extending to clusters of five families and some hotel employees. The China Airlines quarantine hotel has four confirmed cases among its employees. Ironically, Taoyuan International Airport just announced last year’s cargo volume ranked the fourth in the world. Just as the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen is complacent with Taiwan’s historical success to weather the epidemic, the pilots are defeated by the epidemic first, and by extension, the Muslim mosque and schools become loopholes and consequently the quarantine hotel has fallen, constituting the most severe threat of a community outbreak since the start of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This is the consequence of the wrong vaccine policy and the slack epidemic prevention management.
Early this year, the Taoyuan General Hospital of the Ministry of Health and Welfare had a cluster infection incident because the hospital did not implement the segregation and diversion practice to stem possible virus circulation in the wards on different floors. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) did not clear the hospital at first, and the clearing project was implemented only after the outbreak spread. However, this time it is far thornier than the Taoyuan incident.
When the first two pilots were infected, the CECC was not alert to the seriousness of the situation. It was only concerned about the mosque that the pilots had visited. However, the mosque did not have a real-name registration system, making it difficult to track any possible transmission in schools and communities. The quarantine hotel was cleared after its housekeeping chief was tested positive, and some of the staff had a fever, which was followed by three confirmed cases, but their footprints already spread throughout the community, effectively “planting countless unexploded bombs.” Counting in the loopholes in the home quarantine shown by the case of "the dancing grandpa" who tested positive, and “the hundred-people dancing without masks” that rendered “Epidemic New Life” advocacy meaningless. It adds to the concern about potential community spread.
Contrary to the government appealing for public empathy and various supplies being sent to the Taoyuan Hospital when infected, this time the pilots only suffered witch hunts. At the beginning of the cluster infection, Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung pointed to China Airlines pilots’ low vaccination rate, alluding to China Airlines management problems, but he failed to review the major problems in his own vaccine policy.
Before the pilot diagnoses, the vaccination rate was only in the single digits, and it was only increased to 20 percent after the infection spread. Epidemic prevention is a decisive battle at the border, and the crews are more afraid of infection than anyone else. Especially in the past year or so, international passenger air transport has almost ceased, but cargo transportation has been extremely prosperous. China Airlines has 21 all-cargo aircrafts, which is four times that of Evergreen, leaving China Airlines pilots in constant rotation of "either flying or being in isolation." The pilots must hope for safe vaccination more than anyone else.
But why is the pilot vaccination rate low? First of all, the CECC made a wrong assessment at the beginning. In Taiwan, the coronavirus vaccine was administered on March 22. The first wave was only open to the first type of medical staff, and subsequently, the second type of medical hospitals and non-medical personnel and those of collective quarantine centers. It was not until April 12 that high-risk personnel including aviation crews were allowed to have a jab. A week later, there were pilots testing positive; and from the follow-up pilot infection cases, experts further determined that the virus might have spread for one to two months. Obviously, there is a fundamental problem with the order of vaccination.
The key reason is that the Tsai administration repeatedly boasted about its vaccine policy last year, but apart from repeated speculations of biotech stocks, domestic vaccines have not yet been cranked out. As for the procurement of vaccines from abroad, it was suspected that due to the interference by certain ruling party member of the Legislative Yuan and the Tsai administration’s firmly harbored anti-China sentiment, and the progress lagged behind greatly. In the end, only a small quantity of the controversial AstraZeneca vaccine was available, which is expiring pretty soon. Worse still, not only has Denmark announced the suspension of the vaccine, but the United States also intends to donate the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries altogether.
Under this circumstance, even the front-line medical staff only had a vaccination rate of mere 10 percent, and the CECC did not blame the medical staff for the low jab rate, why solely blaming the pilots? The risks and protections for the pilots in case of serious side effects after the vaccination, such as loss of capacity to practice, are still non-existent, and that is why the hesitancy of the pilots.
What is even more surprising is that the quarantine hotel as a fortress not only turns out to be a breach of epidemic prevention, but it is owned by China Airlines, let alone other quarantine hotels. The CECC has no control of the number of employees in all quarantine hotels in Taiwan, who are also not a priority for government funded vaccination. All of these showed that the there is a screw-up in the vaccine policy and the epidemic prevention mechanism has come loose.
In Taiwan, a longtime model of epidemic prevention, the community is now facing the grave threat since the epidemic; and last year, the Tsai administration engaged in the high profile "mask diplomacy" propaganda, even China Airlines was dubbed the cheap title "National Team for Epidemic Prevention Transportation." But now because of government policy mistakes and the negligence in epidemic prevention, not only the pilots have been diagnosed one after another, but they have also become the scapegoat for officials to pass the buck and shirk their responsibilities. How could the pilots not feel bitterly disappointed?