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Asia,  Discussions,  Taiwan

COVID in Taiwan: Prostitutes and the Lion King

While the entire world has been brought to its knees in the wake of a global pandemic, Taiwan is one of the few countries that’s avoided the worst of COVID. For over a year nations across the world have been reporting case numbers ranging from thousands to millions, whilst Taiwan’s numbers had barely risen over a thousand.

However, the month of May brought about a significant change and brought their success story to an abrupt end. Before then, Taiwan only had a handful of daily cases, most of which were imported. Yet during the last month, the number of domestic cases has surged exponentially. How could Taiwan’s achievements be squandered so quickly? That’s all thanks to prostitution and a man known as the Lion King.

Pre-Prostitution Figures

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Taiwan has had great success in controlling the virus within its borders, and have only seen a few domestic cases. After learning from their mistakes following the previous SARS outbreak, Taiwan has been quick to react to any biological threat.

Taiwan COVID
The Taiwanese president (Second from left) and Ministry of Health (right) discussing the next steps of COVID prevention. Photo by 總統府, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

After merely hearing rumours of a mystery Chinese virus on a university message board, the Center for Disease Control (CECC) in Taiwan was on high alert. The government quickly established strict control measures, including a mandatory 2 weeks of quarantine for anyone flying into the country. Taiwan also focused all their resources on testing and tracking COVID from the outset.

The Result

From such strict protocols arose one of the greatest COVID success stories. Taiwan maintained an incredibly low number of cases and deaths remained under double figures. Astonishingly, between April 12th to December 22nd of 2020, Taiwan reported a total of ZERO domestic cases. The only cases during that time were imported and, more importantly, were caught before being released into the general population.

Covid Taiwan case numbers
The number of COVID cases in Taiwan before May. Source: Our World of Data.

As a result, life has always continued as normal in Taiwan. The country has managed to avoid any form of lockdown for the entire outbreak. The only change to daily life was the need to wear masks in a handful of public places.

Sadly, this honeymoon period in Taiwan came to a screeching halt as, since the beginning of May, case numbers began to rise dramatically. In a matter of days, the country went from an average of 7 cases a day to reporting triple figures. In just over 2 weeks, Taiwan has doubled the total number of cases that they’ve had for over a year.

Learn more on how Taiwan was able to maintain such low COVID numbers throughout the entire pandemic.

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Creeping in

Over the last few months, a few tiny blips have affected Taiwan’s otherwise stellar record against the virus. Albeit, in almost every instance, cases were imports and the Taiwanese government has always been quick to isolate them. There have been two constant sources of infection:

Pilots and Flight Crew

Without a doubt, this has been the most prolific source of infections. Since April 20th, the infection has spread to ten pilots working for China Airlines and eight of their relatives. This is partly due to the fact the Flight crews are not subject to the same rules as the public.

Though the average citizen has to spend 14-days in quarantine after entering Taiwan, pilots only need to quarantine for three days, and flight attendants for five. Flight crews were also kept on a “trust-based system”, which predictably resulted in the typical control and prevention methods being bypassed. This included not wearing masks on duty and even leaving their assigned hotels before the end of their quarantine period.

However, by late 2020, Taiwan began to impose more stringent regulations for flight crews due to a cluster of COVID infections linked to flight crews and a New Zealand pilot that broke regulations. The pilot in question was caught lying about his recent contact and travel history and even refused to wear a mask despite having a persistent cough. As a result, he was responsible for transmitting Taiwan’s first domestic case of COVID in over 8 months. Deservingly, he was handed a NT$300,000 (£7,575) fine and was promptly fired.

Hospital Staff

Once COVID cases are detected, the patients must be treated at local medical facilities. Unavoidably, these patients are still exposed to other individuals who could potentially pick up and spread the virus themselves.

Taoyuan General Hospital. Photo by Foxy1219, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Such was the case in February when a cluster of infections appeared in Taoyuan General Hospital, where COVID patients have been treated since the beginning of the outbreak. In total, the infection spread to 21 individuals, including doctors, nurses, other patients and their family members. Even though the government was able to quickly contain the outbreak, it did still show the potential for disaster that can occur in these facilities.

Taiwan’s First Outbreak

The month of May saw a surge of reported COVID cases in Taiwan greater than ever before. Despite the country’s best efforts, the first wave of the pandemic finally arrived after more than a year and a half without it. But how did this happen?

The Original Source

The COVID outbreak originated from the Taoyuan International Airport quarantine hotel, where crew members of China Airlines and Novotel Taoyuan International Airport are assigned for quarantine after arriving in Taiwan.

Novotel Taoyuan International Airport. Photo by Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi on Flickr

For the most part, the hotel had served its purpose by isolating any outbreak within the confines of the hotel. By May 3rd, there had been 24 cases of COVID within the hotel itself, which included both airline staff, hotel staff and even their family members.

Sadly, the hotel appeared to have dropped the ball and caused a great security risk. On May 8th, the hotel was fined NT$1.27 million (US$45,593) for holding people in quarantine alongside regular guests. Such a lapse of judgement could have spread the infection to other hotel guests.

The Lions Club

Happy members of the Lions Club. Photo by 蔡 水玉 on Flickr

For the longest time, the public was reassured knowing that the limited number of cases were isolated within the walls of the Airport Hotel. However, on May 13th, everyone’s worse fears were realised as the CECC reported 13 domestic COVID cases. Nine of these cases were linked to the Taipei chapter of an international organization known as the Lions Club.

The source of infection is believed to be the club’s former president, who’s since been nicknamed “The Lion King”. Altogether, seven men and two women between 30 – 80 years old were infected following an event at a local restaurant.

The Lion King surrounded by his fellow members. Photo by 蔡 水玉 on Flickr

The real number of infected cases is likely much higher due to the members’ enormous social circles and business endeavours. Sadly, that’s already the case, as none other than the Lion King himself is responsible for spreading the virus into yet another “social circle”.

The Prostitute Problem

As of May 13th, a brand new cluster of 27 cases was reported in Taipei’s Wanhua District, also known as the city’s red-light district.

These cases have been linked to Tea Parlours or Hostess bars, places where customers (almost exclusively male) come to be entertained and pay ladies to sing, drink and dine with them in private rooms. Locals on the other hand recognise “tea parlours” to be a gentle euphemism for what are unofficial brothels where paying for sex is a regular occurrence.

Girls this way. Photo by Gerd Altmann’s picture on Pixabay

The infections included women between 40 to 60 years old who worked in the Tea Houses and some unlucky patrons. As a result, a staggering 172 tea parlours and hostess bars had to close for disinfection.

The CECC also revealed that the gene sequences of the infections in the Wanhua District were the same as both the Lions Club and the Taoyuan Novotel Hotel clusters, suggesting they’re part of the same transmission chain. A theory that may be true after the Lion King himself would admit to visiting a tea parlour in the Wanhua District where he supposedly had a “person-to-person connection” with one of the hostesses.

Catch 22 Situation

The key to controlling the outbreak is being able to track the transmission of the virus. For this to work, there needs to be total cooperation from the entire public. Unfortunately, that may not be as easy as first thought.

The entire country understands what “visiting a tea parlour” means and what goes on behind those closed doors. This brings up a big problem, accountability.

How will COVID affect future travel? How will things change forever? Learn about our travelling future.

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Who in their right mind wants that association? Is a married man going to admit to CECC investigators that he’s been socialising with prostitutes while his clueless wife is sitting next to him? People are less likely to share that information willingly, meaning tracking the spread of the virus will be much harder.

Is Prostitution Legal in Taiwan

The legality of sex work in Taiwan is a tricky grey area. Though the practice was outlawed in 1991, in recent years the Constitutional Court declared the law to be “unconstitutional”.

Since 2011, the government has been working to decriminalize sex work and has even put in place laws that allow local governments to establish “special zones” that permit where prostitution. Parliament has also had a bizarre discussion about whether or not they should permit small brothels to operate.

Covid taiwan police
Law men with no law to enforce.

However, official “special zones” are yet to open, as no politician wants the political risk of endorsing them. Additionally, police can still charge foreign prostitutes, suggesting some form of illegality.

Regardless, prostitutes are still a common feature of many massage parlours, KTVs, tea houses and love hotels throughout the city with little to no repercussions. In effect, the authorities turn a blind eye to the practices that they’re well aware that happen.


Despite the relatively small number of cases, they have a potentially widespread effect. On May 13th, over 600,000 people who live or work near Taipei’s red-light district received a text message advising them to monitor themselves for any symptoms of COVID.

Several locations throughout Taiwan are also on high alert due to the travel history of the tea parlour cases, including Nantou County, Kaohsiung, Changhua County, Yunlin County, Miaoli County, Keelung, and Yilan, which now have sporadic cases.

COVID Taiwan closed
Arcades shutting down.

On May 14th the government ordered the closure of all bars, internet cafes, video game arcades and a wide range of public facilities such as libraries, sports centres and public markets. Moreover, on May 17th all schools across the country from kindergartens to universities also shut down until May 28th.

The few businesses that remain open must monitor customers numbers and maintain social distancing. These same customers must also leave their details before entering in the event that a new cluster appears. The public must also wear masks whenever they’re outdoors.

COVID taiwan
Customers must sign their details before entering the supermarket

The Importance of Social Responsibility

Controlling this outbreak comes down to social responsibility. The government has played their part by releasing a new app that tracks whether the user has potentially come into contact with an infected person. The basic protocols of wearing masks and handwashing are just another small part to play.

However, as is life, some people refuse to cooperate. Recently another member of the Lions Club received a hefty NT$300,000 (US$10,724) fine for lying about his daughter’s whereabouts after he tested positive for COVID. After contracting the virus from her infected father, she travelled to Kaohsiung where she possibly spread the virus further.

Now Taiwan is on full alert. Time will tell whether or not they will be able to contain this COVID virus to the same standards as they have done for so long.

People regularly mistake Taiwan as a part of China, why? What’s the difference between them? What’s the history and why is there aggression?

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A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.

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