TAIPEI – Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization is pitting health concerns against geopolitics during the current crisis over the new illness known as COVID-19.
Taiwan has called repeatedly for it to be allowed to participate in WHO, from which it has been barred by China. So strong is China’s diplomatic pressure that Taiwan can no longer take part in the organization’s annual World Health Assembly, even as an observer.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and uses its diplomatic clout to stop the island from joining any organizations that require statehood for membership. Taiwan left the United Nations in 1971 when China joined and is excluded from all of its agencies, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has also played a role in the current crisis.
But some observers say Taiwan's publicity offensive seems at least as much about highlighting its China-imposed diplomatic isolation as it is about public health.
Lack of WHO membership puts Taiwan at risk of missing firsthand updates on infectious diseases, but the island’s government has found alternative ways to stay informed, officials and analysts say.
“I think the WHO matter is more politics than real needs,” said Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “Even though we are not in WHO, we can still get this info from many, many other places.”
Still, delays in getting the latest information pose a danger to Taiwan and the international community, foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanna Ou said.
“If there is no way to get timely information about the outbreak as well as no way to participate completely in international health bodies, that could pose a high-level risk,” she said.
China's isolation campaign against Taiwan has grown since 2016, when independence-leaning Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office.
China’s Communist government seeks to lump Taiwan with the semi-autonomous Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macao when reporting outbreak data, something considered highly condescending to the people of the island who have never been ruled by the Communist government in Beijing.
The new viral disease, COVID-19, has caused 1,380 deaths in mainland China as of Friday. Taiwan has reported 18 cases, all linked to people who flew in from China, but no fatalities.
Despite the obstacles, WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic in Geneva said Wednesday that the organization is allowing Taiwan to access information about the virus and is also taking virus data from Taiwan for wider use. Taiwan was also invited to participate in a global coronavirus forum this week, Jasarevic said.
“We have Taiwanese experts involved in all of our consultations — the clinical networks, laboratory networks, and others — so they’re fully engaged and fully aware of all of the developments in the expert networks,” Jasarevic said.
Disease outbreaks always lay bare the effects of Taiwan’s exclusion from organizations such as WHO, analysts say. Pragmatism generally wins out in the end, even if Beijing’s approval is required first.
As Taiwan grappled in 2003 with SARS, a related viral disease that also originated in China, WHO sent a two-person team to Taipei that helped local health authorities control the outbreak, which contributed to 73 deaths on the island.
“If there’s a true outbreak like the SARS outbreak, WHO wouldn’t withhold assistance because, what if it spread to somewhere else?” said Joanna Lei, chief executive officer of the Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank in Taiwan.