Bring Taiwan into the WHO

The current coronavirus crisis has injected new urgency into a longstanding issue: Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization and its annual World Health Assembly.

Pressure from Beijing designed to isolate Taiwan within the global community has kept Taiwan from participating in scores of international organizations, including all those affiliated with the United Nations. But in no other case has the lack of membership been as consequential as with the WHO. Taiwan receives no notifications from the WHO regarding disease control or other health-related developments. Instead it has to rely on friendly governments and sympathetic NGOs around the world to pass that vital information on to Taiwan’s health authorities.

From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan was able to send representatives to attend the World Health Assembly in Geneva only because China signaled its acquiescence – part of the détente Beijing was engaged in with the Chinese Nationalist administration then in power in Taiwan. That policy changed abruptly when the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen succeeded to the presidency in 2016, and since then no invitations to the WHA have been forthcoming.

The resulting exclusion of Taiwan from the Assembly and its communications channels leaves a gaping hole in the global health network. In the face of the potential pandemic posed by COVID-19, it is crucial that health-information coverage extend to all parts of the world – certainly including a major trading economy like Taiwan, whose 23 million citizens make over 17 million trips abroad each year.

In seeking to justify its blockage of WHA participation by Taiwan, China in the past has reiterated its claim that the island is part of its territory and insisted that looking after the well-being of Taiwan’s population should be its responsibility. The disputable political accuracy of that statement aside, the current epidemic has called into question Beijing’s ability to properly care for the welfare of the people on the Chinese mainland, let alone anyone else. 

While Beijing’s slowness in coming to grips with the crisis and lack of transparency left its population more vulnerable, the Taiwan health authorities’ response to the pending emergency was one of openness, accountability, and efficient policymaking. In the end, Taiwan may or may not remain protected from the worst ravages of the widening epidemic, but in the early stages of the crisis its government showed admirable competence, preparedness, and a keen sense of responsibility.

Besides being unjust to Taiwan, the exclusion from the WHA limits the contribution that Taiwan – with its outstanding medical researchers and healthcare professionals – can make to the rest of the world in fighting disease. Yet despite those obstacles, Taiwan is taking a leading role on many fronts related to global public health, including work on developing an effective treatment for COVID-19. That kind of involvement should be encouraged and expanded, not made subject to political impediments.

The U.S. government in recent years has been an outspoken supporter of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations – at least as an observer if full membership seems impossible. Hopefully the current global health crisis will convince more countries to do the same with regard to the WHA. Health concerns should not be held hostage to political squabbles.

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