My year in Taiwan shows the virus will exploit any hint of complacency | Helen Davidson in Taipei

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For much of this year, I’ve lived a mostly Covid-free life. Taiwan wasn’t just lucky. It had been traumatised by Sars, which it didn’t handle well, and established comprehensive epidemic plans for the next time. There was no talk of herd immunity or accepting mass deaths as inevitable. As far as Taiwan was concerned, Covid-19 wasn’t getting in, and if it tried they were ready.

Taiwan took full advantage of being an island to quarantine itself from the world. It funnelled entrants through a tightly controlled system defined by extreme caution.

In October 2020 I flew in from Sydney and took a subsidised quarantine taxi to the basement of a Taipei quarantine hotel. An employee in full PPE took my temperature, checked me in, gave me plastic shoe covers, and sent me up the service elevator to my room, where I spent 15 days alone.

I was whiplashed by the world I walked out into. I went to Taipei Pride, a heaving, glittering, free-hugging, street party of thousands. I went to a concert and danced with newfound friends, our masks hooked around elbows. I went to a religious festival, with fireworks going off at close range. It felt like another universe and I sometimes forgot there was a pandemic, remembering with a sickening wrench of the heart.

Life wasn’t totally normal – loved ones and others were overseas. Australia’s border closures meant my husband and I couldn’t rush home if needed, and no one could visit. We were in a bubble, safe but trapped.

In November, Taiwan clocked up 220 days without a single community case. Before flu season it extended mandatory mask-wearing and I wondered if they were also trying to eliminate the common cold and smiling.

Days before Christmas, a sick cargo pilot lied about his symptoms and contacts, and infected a friend in Taipei. The Covid-free counter was reset to zero after 253 days. Miraculously it didn’t spread. Another outbreak at a hospital in January infected about 20, but again it was contained.

Four months flew by, and an outbreak linked to reduced quarantine requirements for airline staff made headlines but didn’t alarm – surely, this one would be contained too. But then cases appeared two counties over, and then in a densely populated district of Taipei, then across the island.

Taiwan went into a soft lockdown, but the early rules were unclear, and it was the first sense things might not run so smoothly this time. I’m lucky – I’m healthy and had a job I do from home. Interviewing health experts, a worrying picture formed: authorities had grown comfortable and weren’t ready for an outbreak of a faster moving strain. It felt scary and frustrating when there was a world of examples to have learned from.

Case numbers climbed into the hundreds, politics grew partisan. Businesses resisted working from home. I spent a Saturday FaceTiming dozens of migrant factory workers locked in their crowded dorms, showing the clear double standards compared with local workers. Across the world the pandemic has left the most vulnerable exposed.

Case numbers are low again but lockdown has been extended to late-July. I think Covid is here to stay – at least until we get vaccines. Just 0.3% of Taiwan’s population is fully vaccinated, and current supply is largely propped up by donations.

There are plenty of places to look for a dose of perspective. Taiwan made mistakes, but our tragic deaths are in the hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. To live here has been a blessing, but one tempered by what is happening elsewhere.

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