The long road home: Taiwanese in Hubei become political football

Taiwanese evacuees from China’s Hubei Province are transported to quarantine facilities after arriving at Taoyuan International Airport in early Wednesday. (CNA)

TAIPEI (CNA) — After more than a month of negotiations with Chinese authorities, Taiwan this week carried out the second wave of evacuation of its citizens from Hubei Province in China, the epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, in a process that has been complicated by limited medical resources and apparent distrust on both sides.

When Beijing on Jan. 23 decided to lock down Hubei to prevent further spread of the virus, more than 1,000 Taiwanese nationals were stranded in the province, which has a population of 57 million and now accounts for 67,000 of the 124,000 COVID-19 cases worldwide.

By the end of January, countries including the United States, Japan and Singapore had arranged charter flights to evacuate citizens from the region. According to Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), however, Chinese authorities failed to respond to numerous attempts to coordinate an evacuation of Taiwanese nationals, beginning on Jan. 26.

In a Jan. 30 press conference, MAC Deputy Minister and Spokesman Chiu Chui-cheng (邱垂正) said his agency had begun seeking the assistance of Taiwanese business associations in the Hubei region, given China’s refusal to engage directly.

Days later, on Feb. 3, 247 Taiwanese were evacuated on a privately chartered China Eastern Airlines flight from Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus started.

Almost immediately after they arrived in Taiwan, a controversy arose when it was discovered that three of the evacuees, including one who later tested positive for the virus, were not on the passenger list provided by Taiwan to Chinese authorities.

In the days that followed, the two sides failed to agree on a request put forth by China on Feb. 5 for Taiwan to evacuate another 979 people. Taiwan expressed concerns that a mass repatriation would exceed its quarantine capacity, which at the time was 1,000 rooms, and took issue with China’s alleged refusal to give priority to the sick and elderly.

Although the two sides were in a stalemate over a large scale evacuation, a Taiwanese boy suffering from hemophilia and his mother were sent home from Chengdu on an EVA Airways flight on Feb. 24. Taiwan was allowed to send a nurse to take care of the boy during the flight, while the airline provided protective gear for the passengers.

Two weeks later, Taiwan gave approval for 361 Taiwanese nationals in Wuhan to be evacuated, and they arrived late Tuesday and early Wednesday on China Airlines and China Eastern Airlines charter flights, respectively.

A child with hemophilia (left) and his mother (center) disembark in Taiwan after arriving on EVA Airlines flight from Chengdu, China on Feb. 24. (CNA)
One of two evacuation flights that arrived in Taiwan late Tuesday and early Wednesday carrying 361 Taiwanese evacuees from Hubei, China. (Image courtesy of the Central Epidemic Command Center) (CNA)

At a press conference Wednesday, Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said there was a lull after the first evacuation flight on Feb. 3 due in part to a disagreement over epidemic prevention measures.

Since then, however, several measures have been put in place, and Taiwan’s quarantine capacity has been expanded to 1,500 rooms, according to Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center.

Chen said Chinese authorities have proposed that all Taiwanese in Hubei who test negative for the virus should be evacuated, but Taiwan is taking other precautions.

The Chinese side has interpreted that to mean Taiwan has no confidence in their medical expertise, but that is not the case, Chen said.

In fact, Taiwan is simply taking every precaution to contain a virus that has been proven to be undetectable at times during initial testing, he said.

Meanwhile, an official at Hubei’s Taiwan Affairs Office said that Taiwan was preventing the return of 1,169 Taiwanese there who had applied to take the evacuation flights, according to a report in China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said her administration’s focus has been on preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

The government is “not considering politics, only epidemic prevention, and this has been our principle all along,” Tsai wrote in a Facebook post.

The evacuations should be carried out on the basis of “prevention first and giving priority to the vulnerable,” she wrote.

Evacuees undergo virus screening and disinfectant procedures after arriving at Taoyuan International Airport late Tuesday. (CNA)
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中, center) waves to Taiwanese evacuees arriving at a quarantine facility on Wednesday morning. (CNA)