The coronavirus outbreak has pushed the disputed status of the self-governing island of Taiwan to the global health forefront.
Taiwan says it’s a self-functioning, independent country. China insists it’s not. Beijing says that, like Hong Kong and Macao, Taiwan’s 23 million people are part of China’s “one country, two systems” approach. It’s a long-standing dispute in which Washington has maintained a middle ground, neither recognizing Taiwan as independent nor as a part of China.
The World Health Organization, however, has in practice taken China’s side.
From 2009 to 2015, Taiwan was annually invited to be part of the WHO’s decision-making body under an observer status. Then in 2016, China blocked Taipei’s bid. The move was part of China’s overall strategy to keep Taiwan out of international organizations, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Taiwan’s interests are often ignored, and Taiwan is extremely isolated in the international community,” she said.
Flash forward to the coronavirus outbreak, and Taiwan, because it’s not part of the WHO, is not provided with the latest updates or invited to participate in meetings.
“It’s a loss both for the international community that is unable to tap into expertise that Taiwan has, as well as putting at risk citizens in Taiwan,” said Glaser.
The coronavirus has spread all around China and infected more than 17,000 people, but there are just 10 confirmed cases in Taiwan.
Nonetheless, because Taiwan is often grouped in with China, it has also been subject to flight suspensions — another area in which Taiwan’s aviation authorities are lobbying for change.
Washington has even tentatively stepped in. On Saturday, the State Department issued a statement criticizing the International Civil Aviation Organization after the U.N.-related agency blocked people on Twitter who condemned the ICAO’s exclusion of Taiwan.
In the meantime, as the coronavirus spreads, Taiwanese authorities are worried about simmering health repercussions of these politicized divides.
“If the motto of the WHO is ‘health for all’ and ‘leaving no one behind,’ well, the Taiwanese people are certainly not treated that way,” Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, said in a statement Monday.