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Politics

Support for Taiwan President Tsai surges on virus crackdown

Tough ban on Chinese travelers credited for limiting outbreak's reach

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's approval rating reached its highest level since just after she took office in May 2016.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- The Taiwanese government's tough response to the coronavirus outbreak has helped propel President Tsai Ing-wen's approval rating to its highest level in nearly four years.

Support for the president swelled 12 percentage points from January to 68.5% in a poll by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation -- the best reading since May 2016, just after she took office. Her approval rating had sunk to a nadir of 24.3% in December 2018, following disastrous local elections, before rebounding last year amid a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Of those polled, 85.6% said they are "fairly" or "very" confident that Tsai's government can keep the virus under control. Taiwan had reported only 31 confirmed cases as of Tuesday despite its proximity to mainland China.

The Taiwanese government was quick to respond to the outbreak, likely because of lessons learned from the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, outbreak of 2003, which killed more than 70 on the island. The government classified the coronavirus as a legally designated infectious disease on Jan. 15, allowing for quarantines of people found to be infected, and barred all residents of mainland China from entry Feb. 6.

Tsai's administration has also won some praise for its management of face-mask supplies. The government imposed a ban in late January on shipping or taking masks out of Taiwan to discourage people from reselling them at a high markup on the mainland.

Taiwan was able to churn out about 2 million masks per day at the end of January, for a population of roughly 23 million. The government restricted sales to two per person per week, based on national ID numbers, and efforts are underway to ramp up capacity.

Taiwan's entry restrictions were expanded on Monday. Travelers from Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Italy and Iran are required to conduct "self-health management" for two weeks, including such steps as wearing masks when outside, taking daily temperature readings and tracking who they come in contact with.

Travelers from South Korea, which has reported the second-largest number of cases outside China, must now undergo a 14-day home quarantine upon arrival in Taiwan.

While such measures may have helped keep the virus from spreading, the drop in exports to and tourism from China is having economic consequences. Official data released this month forecast Taiwan's real economic growth for this quarter at 1.8%, a 1.22-point downgrade from the previous projection in November. This would mark the first quarter of sub-2% growth in a year.

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