CORONAVIRUS/President asks military to get to bottom of COVID-19 cluster

04/21/2020 05:49 PM
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the "Panshi" supply ship. (CNA file photo)
the "Panshi" supply ship. (CNA file photo)

Taipei, April 21 (CNA) The Presidential Office on Tuesday called on the nation's military to thoroughly investigate and find those responsible for a cluster COVID-19 infection on a Navy ship that has so far left 27 people infected with the deadly coronavirus.

Presidential Office spokesman Xavier Chang (張惇涵) said President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has demanded the Ministry of National Defense (MND) to complete the internal investigation as soon as possible to see if any negligence was involved in the outbreak.

The cluster infection occurred on the "Panshi" (磐石) supply ship, which was part of the Navy's three-ship "Fleet of Friendship" that visited Palau last month.

The MND should then make public the results of the investigation to clear the doubts of the public over the outbreak and should take responsibility if the results show that negligence on the part of the military led to the outbreak, Chang said.

Chang's comments were made amid concerns raised by lawmakers across party lines over speculation that the military tried to conceal the outbreak, which has been fueled by MND revisions of information related to the mission on which the cluster infection occurred.

Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka said the MND investigative report is expected to be made public "in a day or two."

The Panshi (磐石), together with a Cheng Kung-class guided- missile frigate, the Yueh Fei (岳飛), and a Lafayette class frigate, the Kang Ding (康定), departed Taiwan in early March for Palau, from March 12 to 15, and then returned to the Zuoying military port in Kaohsiung on April 9.

The people on the three ships then remained on board for another six days to comply with Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) quarantine requirements that passengers cannot disembark from ships until at least 30 days after leaving their most recent port of call.

Those on board were finally allowed to leave the ships and return home on April 14 and 15.

On April 18, however, the CECC announced that three people aboard the Panshi had tested positive for COVID-19, and the number of confirmed cases has since risen to 27 as of Tuesday.

The 744 people aboard the three military vessels included naval officers, servicepersons, and students in the naval and political warfare academics.

The CECC originally suspected that the crew members contracted the virus during the fleet's goodwill visit to Palau, its only port of call during the month-long trip.

It later said, however, that health authorities are still conducting an investigation to determine if the crew contracted the virus locally or overseas.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said Tuesday that it had screened staff at the country's embassy in Palau as a precaution after they came in contact with the naval fleet last month.

A total of 24 people, including members of the embassy and technical mission, their family members, and locally hired employees, have been tested at the Belau National Hospital, said MOFA spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安).

Test results are scheduled to be released on Wednesday, Ou said.

The Palauan government is also arranging to have overseas Taiwanese and Palauan citizens who came in contact with the naval fleet last month to undergo coronavirus screening, she added.

Ou said the Navy vessel's cluster infection has not affected diplomatic ties between the two allies.

Asked whose decision it was to send the fleet on the mission during a pandemic, the spokeswoman said the MND was responsible for planning the annual "Fleet of Friendship" visit while MOFA merely assisted the military in facilitating the goodwill mission.

On Monday, Vice Defense Minister Chang Che-ping (張哲平) defended the decision, saying the goodwill visit was an important annual mission for the Navy.

It was also crucial to the training of Naval personnel and cadets and for promoting closer ties with the country's diplomatic allies, he said.

(By Wen Kuei-hsiang, Chen Yun-yu and Joseph Yeh)

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