TAIPEI, Taiwan – As the coronavirus changed lives and economies around the world, Taiwan has been an oasis.
Every day, droplets fly with devotion in crowded restaurants, bars and cafes. Office buildings hum and schools ring out with the screams and laughter of maskless children. In October, a Pride parade drew an estimated 130,000 people onto the streets of the capital Taipei. Rainbow masks were plentiful; social distancing, not so much.
This island of 24 million people, with just 10 Covid-19 deaths and fewer than 1,000 cases, has used its success to sell something flawed: living without fear of the coronavirus. The relatively few people who are allowed to enter Taiwan have flocked and contributed to an economic boom.
“Taiwan felt a little empty for a while. Lots of people were moving overseas and only coming back every now and then, ”said Justine Li, the head chef at Fleur de Sel, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Taichung city that had been booked for a month, and it had been since the fall. “Now some of those occasional guests are withdrawn.”
These Covid migrants are mostly foreign Taiwanese and dual nationals. This included business people, students, retirees and well-known personalities such as Eddie Huang, the Taiwanese-American restaurateur and author. According to the immigration authorities, around 270,000 more Taiwanese have come to the island than in 2020 – about four times the net inflow of the previous year.
Most of Taiwan’s borders have been closed to foreign visitors since last spring. However, highly skilled non-Taiwanese workers have been admitted under a “Gold Card” employment program that the government aggressively promoted during the pandemic. More than 1,600 gold cards have been issued since January 31 of last year, more than four times as many as in 2019.
The influx of people helped make Taiwan one of the fastest growing economies of the past year – one of the few to expand at all, in fact. There was a brief slowdown at the start of the pandemic, but the economy grew more than 5 percent in the fourth quarter from the same period in 2019. The government expects growth of 4.6 percent in 2021, the fastest pace in seven years would be .
Steve Chen, 42, a Taiwanese-American entrepreneur who co-founded YouTube, was the first to sign up for the Gold Card program. He moved from San Francisco to the island with his wife and two children in 2019. After the pandemic broke out, he was joined by many of his friends in Silicon Valley, especially those with Taiwanese heritage – a kind of reverse brain drain.
He and colleagues like Kevin Lin, one of the founders of Twitch, and Kai Huang, co-creator of Guitar Hero, swapped coffee meetings in the Ferry Building in San Francisco for badminton games and poker nights in Taipei. Taiwan’s leaders say the infusion of foreign talent has energized the tech industry, known for its manufacturing expertise rather than its corporate culture.
“This whole chain that you have in Silicon Valley – the entrepreneurs willing to take a risk, the investors willing to write an early check – all of these people have actually come back and are now in Taiwan,” said Mr. Chen lounging on a couch in his office in a government-sponsored common room in Taipei.
“I think it’s a golden era for technology,” he said, “and it dawns on the government that now is the time to really seize that time.”
The surge in returning citizens has put pressure on the short-term rent market. A property manager estimated that the number of double-nationals or overseas Taiwanese looking for housing in 2020 was twice as high as in previous years.
Not all Taiwanese industries flourished. Those who depend on robust international travel, such as airlines, hotels, and tour operators, have achieved great success. However, exports have risen for eight straight months, driven by the supply of electronics and increasing demand for Taiwan’s most important product, semiconductor chips.
Domestic tourism is also booming. Taiwanese who were used to taking short flights to Japan or Southeast Asia are now exploring their homeland. Landmarks like Sun Moon Lake and Alishan Mountain Resort have been inundated with tourists, and by July at least one upscale hotel is booked outside of Taichung.
Orchid Island, a small, coral-ringed island off Taiwan’s east coast, had so many visitors last summer that hotel operators launched a campaign asking them to take two pounds of rubbish with them when they left.
Some aspects of pandemic life have permeated Taiwan’s borders. Temperature controls and hand sanitizing are common, and many public places (though not schools) require masks.
But for the most part, thanks to strict contact tracing and strict quarantine for arriving travelers, the virus was out of sight and out of their minds.
Some returnees, such as 35-year-old Robin Wei, fear their eventual departure.
“We just feel very happy and definitely a little guilty,” said Wei, a product manager for a technology company in the Bay Area, who returned to Taipei with his wife and young son last May. “We feel like the ones who have benefited from the pandemic.”
For many, the return represented a chance to reconnect with Taiwan.
After taking a Masters in Computer Science in Australia, Joshua Yang, 25, a dual Taiwanese-Australian citizen, decided to return in October. The job market in Australia was looking grim, he said, and he took the opportunity to do the military service required of all Taiwanese men under 36.
Mr. Yang wasn’t the only one with this idea. By the time he arrived for basic education in December, Yang said he teamed up with a number of returnees and dual nationals, including an American, a German, a Filipino, and an overseas Taiwanese who had studied in California.
For two and a half weeks of training, Mr. Yang has been allowed to end his service by volunteering at an indigenous history museum in a remote city in southern Taiwan.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity if it hadn’t been for the pandemic,” said Mr. Yang. “I was able to understand my homeland in a different way through a different lens and learn what it is like for the indigenous peoples of Taiwan who are the traditional owners of the land.”
Many wonder how long Taiwan’s status as a Covid-19 outlier can last, especially as vaccine rollout elsewhere advances. So far, officials have been slow to procure and distribute vaccines, partly because they were so little needed. The government announced just this month that it had received its first batch to be given to medical workers.
Some people, like Tai Ling Sun, 72, are already planning to exit the bladder.
In January, at the urging of friends and family in Taiwan, Ms. Sun and her husband came from California to Kaohsiung, where they grew up. They were concerned for their safety in Orange County, where coronavirus cases were on the rise.
After two weeks in quarantine, Ms. Sun entered a Taiwan that – apart from the masks – looked and felt almost the same as on previous visits. Since then, she has made the most of her stay with a series of routine medical exams that many in the US have delayed since the pandemic began.
A virus-free paradise, however, does not offer immunity to all diseases. Ms. Sun said she was homesick. She longed to see her five children and breathe pristine suburban air. And she added that she wanted a vaccine.
“It was great to be here,” said Ms. Sun. “But it’s time to go home.”