Along with its Asian neighbours South Korea and Singapore, Taiwan has received near-universal praise for its approach to fighting coronavirus.
- Taiwan, which has been praised for its COVID-19 response, says WHO is not passing on information it shares with the body
- Taiwan has been denied observer status at the WHO since 2016
- Critics say WHO is too influenced by China, which considers Taiwan part of its territory
Despite its proximity to China, where the pandemic started, Taiwan’s Centres for Disease Control has reported just over 300 cases of coronavirus.
Only two people have died.
By contrast, Australia — which has a similar population — has reported 4,359 cases and 19 deaths.
But despite this, Taiwan’s foreign ministry has complained that official data and prevention methods it has provided to the World Health Organisation (WHO) are not being shared with the international body’s member states.
WHO membership is only open to members of the United Nations, and Taiwan was voted out of the UN in favour of the People’s Republic of China in 1971.
A controversial interview with Bruce Aylward, assistant director-general at the WHO, has brought the issue of Taiwan’s inclusion into focus once again.
Taiwan’s fight against the coronavirus
After its first case of COVID-19 was detected in January, Taiwan’s Government adopted an aggressive approach to screening international arrivals and contact tracing those infected.
Primed for the outbreak of an infectious disease by the SARS crisis of 2003, the Government’s adoption of swift and decisive measures appear to have limited the spread of COVID-19.
Taiwan introduced harsh penalties for those breaking home quarantine, introducing fines of up to $53,000.
“About 58 per cent of all confirmed cases in Taiwan were believed to have resulted from local transmission,” Benjamin J Cowling, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Hong Kong, wrote in the New York Times.
“This is an important marker of success for Taiwan’s containment strategy: In many other places, local cases outnumbered imported infections by a far greater margin.”
Taiwan has earned praise for its effective approach to combatting COVID-19 while allowing normal life to continue. (AP: Chiang Ying-ying)
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Nevertheless, Taiwan’s foreign ministry this week said WHO was not sharing information provided by Taipei to its member states.
“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.
Ms Ou called on the body to “continue to review and improve upon some unreasonable restrictions imposed on Taiwan based on political considerations”.
The WHO has said it is closely following coronavirus developments, including lessons learned in Taiwan, “to share best practices globally”.
Push for inclusion of Taiwan in WHO
World leaders as prominent 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 campaigned strongly for WHO to allow Taiwan a place at the table.
The WHO ended Taiwan’s observer status at its annual meetings — the World Health Assembly — in 2016.
At China’s behest, Taiwanese officials were allowed to attend this year’s forum in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO has come in for widespread criticism amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP: Jean-Christophe Bott via Keystone)
Critics say the WHO is too deferential to Beijing, which under the so-called One China policy considers Taiwan part of its territory.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist from the Australian National University, told the ABC China’s funding for UN agencies such as WHO made it relatively immune to criticism.
“It makes sense then for WHO to avoid direct criticism of China which could lead to defunding, underfunding or sudden suspension of certain WHO-backed programs,” he said
@melissakchan tweet: I wanted to find a slightly longer version of the RTHK interview (more context)
Asked last week by Hong Kong’s RTHK network whether it would consider granting Taiwan membership, the WHO’s Dr Aylward said he did not hear the reporter’s question.
Dr Aylward, who is also co-leader of WHO’s joint mission on COVID-19 in China, then appeared to end the interview and turn his computer off.
Criticised over the interview, WHO released a rare statement on Taiwan, stating “the question of Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO member states, not WHO staff”.
“However, WHO is working closely with all health authorities who are facing the current coronavirus pandemic, including Taiwanese health experts,” it said.
“The Taiwanese caseload is low relative to population … WHO is taking lessons learned from all areas, including Taiwanese health authorities, to share best practices globally.”
US support for Taiwan strengthened
The coronavirus pandemic has heightened diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Beijing has been saying it has the coronavirus outbreak under control, and it has sought to promote a positive image of its official response abroad.
Senior Chinese officials and state media have even actively promoted conspiracy theories, including that the disease originated in the United States or Italy, rather than China.
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US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has angered Beijing by referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”.
Last week, the Trump Administration signed into law an act which requires the State Department to push allies of Taiwan not to cut diplomatic ties.
The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act calls for the strengthening of ties with Taiwan.
It also seeks to “alter” economic, security and diplomatic relations with countries that choose to “undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan”.
Several Pacific states last year severed ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing, meaning it now only has full diplomatic relations with 15 countries around the world, but “substantive ties” with several others including Australia and the US.
The TAIPEI Act also reiterates Washington’s commitment to advocate for Taiwan’s full inclusion in international organisations such as WHO.
Eric Li-Luan Chu, a former mayor of New Taipei City and a prominent figure in the Chinese Nationalist Party, wrote in February “it is time for the WHO to put politics aside and think about what is good for world health”.
For Mr Sung, the potential consequences of coronavirus extend far beyond public health.
“Taiwan as one of the liberal democracies in Asia … has been doing exceptionally well on the containment of coronavirus,” he said.
“If the Trump administration fails spectacularly once again … it will deal quite a bad blow to Western liberal democracy.”