Taiwan Wants to Help Fight the Coronavirus. WHO Won’t Let It.

Amid a global health threat, international organizations shouldn’t be playing Beijing’s political games.

A man points to a webpage promoting prevention of the deadly coronavirus from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook account in Taipei on Feb. 14.
A man points to a webpage promoting prevention of the deadly coronavirus from Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Facebook account in Taipei on Feb. 14. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

The novel coronavirus outbreak has resulted in more than 80,000 confirmed cases and killed nearly 3,000 people worldwide. Its spread has already surpassed the total number of casualties during the SARS crisis in 2002-2003. The World Health Organization (WHO) belatedly declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Jan. 30.

Some 60,000 flights carry 10 million passengers between Taiwan and China every year. Taiwan has an acute interest in protecting its own and the world’s welfare from this latest health threat. After the painful but valuable experience of dealing with SARS in 2003, Taiwan’s government is making maximum and keenly effective efforts to prevent further outbreaks on the island.

However, Taiwan was excluded from the WHO emergency meetings on the new coronavirus crisis. In fact, Taiwan has been denied permission to attend the annual World Health Assembly and WHO technical and experts’ meetings since 2016 due to Beijing’s aggressive attempts at limiting Taiwan’s international participation.

Moreover, data and other related references released by WHO deliberately list coronavirus cases reported by the Taiwanese authorities as under China, regardless of the fact that Taiwan has never been under the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China and that travelers around the world deserve to obtain accurate and timely information about the situation. Taiwan, despite confirming only 34 cases as of Feb. 28, is thus listed as “very high risk” by WHO—because the organization will not do the obvious thing and give its information separately from China’s.

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The way in which WHO has treated Taiwan so far has been unprofessional, unfair, and confusing. The governments of Italy, Vietnam, and the Philippines, for example, placed bans either on flights from Taiwan or on Taiwanese nationals based on WHO’s inaccurate listing. Hanoi and Manila, however, have swiftly reversed their decisions. The 23 million people of Taiwan should not suffer because of WHO’s deliberate ignorance of the undeniable fact that Taiwan’s and China’s health care systems are administered separately by independent health authorities.

Besides WHO, Taiwan is also unable to receive the most updated information from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regarding its responses to the unfolding emergency situation since Taiwan is without membership in ICAO either. Moreover, ICAO has blocked many Twitter accounts questioning this decision. Isolating Taiwan, which is one of the busiest international travel hubs, from the world’s foremost organizations on health and civil aviation does not make sense. Moreover, it puts the lives of Taiwan’s 23 million people at greater risk and creates a serious gap in the global health network.

No one should be left behind amid the current health crisis. Therefore, we are very grateful for our diplomatic allies in Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific, as well as like-minded countries such as the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, together with the European Union, for publicly voicing in recent weeks their staunch support for Taiwan’s participation in WHO to jointly combat the deadly disease.

We are pleased that WHO took a positive first step by inviting medical experts from Taiwan to take part online in the international forum on the novel coronavirus on Feb. 11-12 in Geneva. Albeit a small progress, we will continue working tirelessly with the international community to make substantive contributions.

Taiwan, with its health care system ranked No. 1 for two years in a row in the Health Care Index, has advanced medical skills and cutting-edge health technology that can help in controlling global epidemics. In recent years, for instance, Taiwan has hosted several workshops with the United States on measures to prevent dengue fever, Zika virus, chikungunya virus, enterovirus, and tuberculosis for those countries in need. With its state-of-the-art disease prevention capabilities in line with the International Health Regulations, Taiwan has much to offer. Excluding Taiwan from WHO not only hurts the fundamental human rights of its 23 million residents but also prevents people around the world from obtaining quality assistance from Taiwan.

There is growing speculation and concern that WHO and a few other international organizations are bending to the political influence of China. The Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, published a report in May 2019 indicating that “[i]nternational organizations thus have become an arena for ideological contestation, in which Beijing’s goal is to make authoritarian rule seem as legitimate as democratic government.”

WHO and other functional international organizations were created to promote fundamental human rights for all. Therefore, the health segregation of Taiwan is a cause for alarm and needs to be stopped. Taiwan deserves more international access in response to the current and future health crisis. At the same time, rest assured that Taiwan can and will always punch above its weight to help.

Stanley Kao is the head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.