Like other countries that responded effectively, Taiwan had a bad experience with SARS in 2003, so it was better prepared for an epidemic. In addition, the Taiwanese government is preternaturally configured to doubt any claim from the government of China. So it moved early under the assumption, despite assurances to the contrary from Beijing, that the coronavirus could be transmitted by humans to humans.
On Dec. 31, Taiwan queried the World Health Organization about this possibility but did not receive a reply. Still, on the same day, Taiwanese health officials started screening passengers coming from Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have originated.
Taiwan’s experience should be a model for the rest of us. Unfortunately, getting Taiwan’s story out has been difficult because Taiwan, which boasts one of the best health-care systems in the world, is not a member of the World Health Organization nor of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body that governs the WHO.
There’s only one reason for this woeful arrangement: China.
The government in Beijing claims that Taiwan is part of China and should not be allowed representation in international organizations. Since 1971, when China joined the United Nations and Taiwan was tossed out, China has worked tirelessly to isolate Taiwan diplomatically as part of a program to force Taiwan, which today is home to one of the most vibrant democracies in Asia, to accept China as its overlord. Today, only 17 nations recognize Taiwan. The United States switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979 but maintains a robust diplomatic presence on the island.
Today, Taiwan’s contribution to the fight against covid-19 has been publicly recognized by Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, and Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan. State Department officials have conducted high-level virtual briefings with Taiwanese epidemiologists and government officials. U.S. officials have praised Taiwan for sending millions of masks to the United States. But, true to form, China has reacted in typically small-minded and aggressive manner, accusing Taiwan of engaging in “mask diplomacy” and seeking to profit from the pandemic to push its independence agenda.
Since the eruption of the coronavirus, WHO officials have acted like good soldiers in China’s campaign to cut off Taiwan. WHO officials have refused to answer questions about Taiwan’s success at limiting the coronavirus. In late March, Bruce Aylward, an assistant director-general at the WHO, even seemed to disconnect a video interview to avoid a question about Taiwan.
At a news conference last week, the WHO gave its best pro-China performance yet. Responding to a question from a Canadian reporter about the potential erosion of the WHO’s moral authority, the director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, launched incongruously into a tirade against Taiwan. How he came up with Taiwan as a boogeyman is truly anybody’s guess. Tedros accused Taiwan’s government of tolerating a campaign of death threats and racist insults against him.
“This attack comes from Taiwan,” Tedros said, without providing any details. “The foreign ministry knows about this campaign and they didn’t dissociate themselves.”
Sure, Tedros is not a favorite in Taiwan. But there’s no indication of any government support for any racist campaign against him.
Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, pushed back at Tedros’s undocumented charges but added that she shares his pain. “We know how it feels to be discriminated against and isolated more than anyone else as we have been excluded from global organizations for years,” she said in a post on her official Facebook page.
She invited Tedros to visit Taiwan. No doubt he will decline. But what should happen is this: Taiwan should be allowed back into the World Health Assembly, where it was an observer from 2009 to 2016, and Beijing should be told clearly that it cannot turn on and off the switch to the assembly for political reasons. Keeping 23 million people out of an organization dedicated to public health because of the whims of the Chinese Communist Party is something the world can no longer afford.
Beijing won’t be happy, but there is a model for this. In 2001, China entered the World Trade Organization. Literally five minutes after Beijing’s formal accession to the trading body, Taiwan was allowed in under the name “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).” Taiwan won entry to the WTO because of pressure by the United States and other major trading nations, which told Beijing not to mess around. The global trading system was considered too important to let it be held hostage by Beijing.
Covid-19 has taught us that global health is no different.