A glaring episode took place recently, showing that not only is the WHO not considering Taiwan as a state — but they’re not even willing to talk about it.

When talking about positive examples in the fight against COVID-19, it’s hard to ignore Taiwan. Located just off the coast of China, with millions of Taiwanese working in China, and with a crowded and urbanized population, Taiwan was a prime target for a major outbreak.

Indeed, cases started coming in early in Taiwan, but they were quickly stifled. Through a strategy that combined an efficient and transparent plan, hi-tech monitoring, and a tight quarantine regime, the island stopped the coronavirus before it even took off. At the time of this writing, there are just over 300 confirmed cases, for a population of over 24 million. Taiwan is not out of the woods yet, but so far, they are a noteworthy example.

But despite this, Taiwan’s foreign ministry has complained that official data and prevention methods it has provided to the World Health Organisation (WHO) have not been shared with other member states, depriving the international community of potentially valuable information.

Politics and health

The political status of Taiwan is a very difficult situation — to put it lightly. To put it bluntly, it is a geopolitical absurdity.

Taiwan is not exactly a state. It is a democracy, whereas China is led by a single-state communist party. To make matters even thornier, Taiwan’s situation is different from other parts of the world who want independence: Taiwan doesn’t claim independence from China, it claims that it is China.

Without going into the endlessly-deep caverns of this geopolitical nightmare, let’s keep a note of two things. First, the United Nations (UN) does not recognize Taiwan, and the WHO is essentially designed as a part of the UN. Secondly, China tends to get very angry whenever any country, cityor company recognizes Taiwan as anything else other than a Chinese province, putting pressure on the rest of the world to also consider Taiwan nothing more than a Chinese province.

Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is, while debatable, at the very least understandable. But shunning it from the international debate at a time of global crisis, particularly when its lessons can be significant for other parts of the world, is hardly constructive.

Subsequently, the WHO issued a rare statement on the matter in which it said:

“The question of Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO Member States, not WHO staff.” The organization went on to say that the “WHO is working closely with all health authorities who are facing the current coronavirus pandemic, including Taiwanese health experts.”

However, Taiwanese officials were quick to point out that in a pandemic, borders matter very little.

“We hope through the test of this epidemic, the WHO can recognise clearly that epidemics do not have national borders, no one place should be left out because any place that is left out could become a loophole… any place’s strength shouldn’t be neglected so that it can make contributions to the world,” said Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung at a recent press conference.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen also addressed the situation, saying that she “hoped that all countries after experiencing this outbreak would better understand Taiwan’s capabilities and areas of contribution, to seriously consider Taiwan’s participation in the global response to the pandemic”.

Foreign minister Joseph Wu took an even more direct stance.

Increasingly, voices have started to criticize the WHO for being too deferential to Beijing.

WHO and China

The WHO is, understandably, in a delicate situation. As a health body, it must be neutral and inclusive. Yet, as much as it probably would, its members can’t truly ignore the political auspices that govern the organization.

In recent times (and especially over the COVID-19 outbreak), criticism has mounted against the WHO for being quick to praise and slow to criticize China.

For instance, as China imposed draconic quarantine measures, the WHO praised it as an example of how to contain a disease. Other Asian countries (South Korea and Taiwan in particular) managed a similar success, with far less stringent restrictions. But there was little criticism for the way China handled the situation before the restrictions: hiding scientific and medical information and threatening all whistleblowers with jail time. The lab that publicly released the coronavirus genetic sequencing to the world was shut down. A study showed that if China had released its information to the world sooner (instead of attempting a cover-up), or even if the country had a free press, the entire pandemic might have been avoided, or at the very least, significantly delayed.

Several of China’s actions in the aftermath of the Wuhan outbreak have also raised suspicions. China changed its official definition of what constitutes a COVID-19 infection eight times. It almost certainly lied about the total number of fatalities and repeatedly hid information from international bodies — including the WHO. When China started pushing traditional medicine as a treatment for COVID-19, the WHO again turned a lenient eye. When they published a propaganda book about how the outbreak was defeated (even as the first wave was still ongoing), the organization still gave no warnings.

This is not the type of authority you want to have pressuring a health organization.

Including Taiwan in WHO?

Taiwan has official channels to communicate with members of the WHO. But without membership, it is very difficult for it to make its voice heard.

“Therefore, the health bodies of various countries cannot understand the current situation of Taiwan’s epidemic situation, preventive policies and border quarantine measures from the information provided by the WHO,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said.

There is a procedure for accepting non-UN members into the WHO, and prominent world leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Canada’s Justin Trudeau have called for WHO to grant Taiwan full membership. The US State Department has also pushed for Taiwan to be included, and recently, the Trump Administration signed into law an act requiring the State Department to push allies of Taiwan not to cut diplomatic ties with the state.

The problem extends far beyond health. There are historical, political, and economic arguments to be made. But for the purpose at hand — working together to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic — it’s hard to find a non-political argument against giving Taiwan a seat at the table. We need all the help we can get.

By Mihai Andrei
ZME Science

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