Taiwan raises epidemic response level, halts pilgrimage on virus concerns

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan on Thursday raised its epidemic response level to the highest as it readied a $2 billion package to cushion the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on its export-reliant economy, and postponed a major religious event scheduled for next month.

The move allows the government to tackle the virus outbreak in a much faster manner with more resources across various ministries, the official Central News Agency reported.

Premier Su Tseng-chang announced the decision in a cabinet meeting, citing sporadic cases of community transmission on the island, which has seen 32 cases of the coronavirus and one death.

It came two days after Taiwan’s parliament approved a T$60 billion ($2 billion) package to soften the impact from the virus on its economy, which includes loans for small businesses, subsidies for hard-hit tour agencies and even vouchers to spend on food in Taiwan’s famous night markets.

“As the international epidemic outbreak gets more serious day by day, Taiwan needs to enhance its defence against the virus,” Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said while overseeing troops tasked with disinfection on Thursday morning.

“We will integrate all government resources to fight against the threats of the coronavirus.”

The island also postponed an annual pilgrimage of the sea goddess Mazu in which more than one million people were expected to join a 340km (211 miles) trip in the island’s largest religious procession.

“To protect the hundred-year-old cultural activity...the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage will be postponed this year to fully support the government’s disease prevention work,” the organizer said in a social media post.

The island has largely suspended travel and tourism links with China to curb its spread and advised citizens against visiting South Korea.

This week Taiwan passed a bill to penalize people who violate government-mandated home quarantine orders, with those in breach possibly facing a T$2 million fine or two years in jail.

Reporting by Yimou Lee; Editing by Tom Hogue and Lincoln Feast.