In April, Taiwan was the toast of the international community for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While hundreds of millions were infected worldwide, and millions died, Taiwan went 250 days without a single local case, allowing the island's 23.5 million residents to live largely normal lives without lockdowns or even school closures.

The Democratic Progressive Party-led government of President Tsai Ing-wen was widely credited for its quick implementation of pandemic response protocols that combined strict border controls, mandatory quarantines and contact tracing.

Paramedics transport a patient to an ambulance on May 28, 2021, in Taiwan as coronavirus infections spread. (Central News Agency/Kyodo)

Tsai's polling numbers, already high after her re-election victory in January 2020, rose to record levels in the following months as the pandemic was brought under control.

All that ended in May, however, as an outbreak among flight crews of Taiwan's state-owned China Airlines spread to the broader community, leading to thousands of new local cases and nearly 600 deaths.

Again, the government responded quickly, declaring an island-wide partial lockdown that closed schools and restaurants, required masks and social distancing, but left business untouched -- measures that have had limited impact on daily life while significantly slowing infection rates.

But Taiwanese are far from out of the woods, especially as vaccines are scarce and will remain so until fall.

In addition, Tsai's government, once praised for allowing public health experts to oversee the island's pandemic response, has been blamed for increasingly allowing politics to dictate policy, effectively instigating the current crisis.

Criticism has been particularly harsh in three areas.

The first involves a decision made in April by health minister Chen Shih-chung to reduce the quarantine times for airline personnel returning from overseas flights from an already low five days, to three, with no requirement for a negative test before release.

In clear breach of regulations, crews were also quarantined in an airline-owned hotel along with minimally protected staff and regular guests, several of whom became the first to be infected.

To make matters worse, Chen initially denied responsibility for the decision, a claim he later admitted was false.

The second criticism stems from the lack of preparation for dealing with the virus once it began to spread, especially testing, which as Shih Wen-yi, a former deputy director of Taiwan's Center for Disease Control, said is essential to identify potential carriers.

As long as infections were few, the standard polymerase chain reaction tests were fine. But these take time, and with numbers rising, processing labs were quickly overwhelmed, leading to wait times of a week or more, making them useless as a preventative tool.

Here too, Chen has been faulted for refusing to acquire rapid test kits available from Taiwanese companies that manufacture them. Only too late did he relent and allow local governments to set up rapid testing sites and to import home test kits.

The third issue involves acquiring vaccines, a problem shared by many countries in the region, but complicated in Taiwan by several factors, most notably interference by China, which regards the island as a breakaway province and has been relentless in its efforts to obstruct and embarrass Tsai's independence-leaning party since its landslide election victory in 2016.

While frustrating government efforts to obtain inoculations through normal channels, Beijing has offered to supply Taiwan with vaccines.

In addition to widely shared doubts about the safety and efficacy of Chinese shots, "playing the vaccine card" is an obvious attempt to discredit the DPP government, said Kuo Yu-jen, professor of China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Taiwan's National Sun Yat-sen University.

It also undermines the island's sovereignty, Kuo added. "To accept Chinese vaccines is tantamount to admitting Taiwan is a province of China," he said.

Such claims have not stopped Tsai's political opponents from exploiting the situation.

A senior member of the main opposition Nationalist Party (KMT), Hung Hsiu-chu, urged Tsai to accept Chinese vaccines, saying that "the real enemy is the virus, not Beijing."

Similarly, former KMT presidential spokesman Lo Chih-chiang has been critical of what he calls "gambling" with public safety, and not only with the DPP's anti-China policies.

Citing the low number of doses ordered from foreign suppliers, far fewer than would be needed to treat the population, Lo echoed claims by others that the government is limiting imports to protect a local company, Medigen Biotechnology Corp., currently developing its own vaccine.

"Taiwanese deserve access to all safe vaccines," Lo said, "including Chinese ones."

For now, opposition criticism has had its intended effect.

Tsai's approval ratings have declined from 45.7 percent in May to 43.2 percent this month, according to a tally released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation on Wednesday, with the main cause her administration's botched handling of the May outbreak.

But how the DPP fortunes will fare in the long term is unclear.

The 2022 local elections are still 18 months away, and Tsai has a history of turning polls on their head, as she did so dramatically in the run-up to her 2020 re-election.

Indeed, as infection rates have declined in recent weeks and vaccines begin to arrive, some have remarked, once again, on Tsai's ability to turn adversity to her advantage.

Quick to call out Beijing for its vaccine scheming, she was rewarded with 3.74 million doses from allies Japan and the United States, not to mention declarations of support at the recent Group of Seven leaders' meeting.

Tsai has also used Taiwan's position as the world's leading manufacturer of semiconductors in an effort to work around Chinese obstacles to her government procuring vaccines directly from Western pharmaceutical companies.

While bowing to cross-strait bullying might be safer, as Hung and Lo say, Taiwanese are aware that, in the words of Sung Wen-ti, a lecturer in Taiwan Studies at Australian National University, "balancing dignity and security has always been (a challenge) for Taiwan."

And if Tsai's government did limit foreign vaccines to boost the local product, early data on the Medigen jab suggest considerable promise, which if realized will see the entire island vaccinated by year-end.

As for the recent COVID-19 outbreak's effect of coming elections, Academia Sinica political scientist Nathan Batto cautions against inflated expectations.

While much will depend "on what happens over the next few months," Batto says, voters usually interpret events "consistent with their preexisting bias."

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