Taiwan’s Rising International Standing amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by T.Y. Wang.

Image credit: WHO World Health Organization website by Jernej Furman/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

As COVID-19 ravages the world, infecting millions of people and hitting a death toll of over 170,000, Taiwan’s success in combating the deadly virus has attracted world-wide attention. With its recent dispute with the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the island country has grabbed international headlines again, which may aid its efforts to join the international health organisation.

Responding to a question from a reporter, and without providing any evidence, Tedros claimed that the Taipei government was behind recent death threats and racist online attacks against him. Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, issued a rebuttal at Tedros’ allegations on her Twitter account but also indicated that she shares his pain. “For years, we have been excluded from international organisations, and we know better than anyone else what it feels like to be discriminated against and isolated.”

Tedros’ unfounded charges against Taiwan coincided with U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of halting funding for the WHO. While Trump’s announcement is perceived as an effort to deflect criticism of his own slow response to the spread of COVID-19, the timing has made Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO even more visible.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO nor a participant of the World Health Assembly (WHA), which is the decision-making body that governs the WHO, primarily due to diplomatic isolation imposed by China. Treating the island as a renegade province and vowing to unify Taiwan “with the motherland,” Chinese leaders have vigorously isolated Taipei from the world community and blocked its participation in international organisations, including the WHO. They have insisted that all information from the WHO would have to go through Beijing, but have also shown very little, if any, willingness to help. Taiwan’s researchers and health authorities had to rely on the WHO’s website for information and struggled to obtain materials such as diagnostic reagents. Taiwan has, therefore, been excluded from emergency meetings and important global expert briefings. As a result, Taipei was not able to receive pertinent information in a timely manner or any information at all during global crises. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, for instance, it took seven weeks after Taiwan identified its first SARS case before the WHO dispatched two experts to the island country, and only with Beijing’s permission. The lack of information on the novel virus, in part, was responsible for the 2003 SARS outbreak on the island, which led to the shutdown of several hospitals, 671 confirmed cases and 84 deaths. Back then, health experts warned that Taiwan’s exclusion from the international health system had created a serious gap in international efforts to combat infectious diseases.

Ironically, Tedros’ unsubstantiated charges against Taiwan revealed that the Taipei government, though not a member of the WHO, nevertheless alerted the international health body of the possibility of human-to-human transmission of the virus as early as December 31, 2019. However, the WHO did not share this information with its member states until January 10 and did not declare COVID-19 a pandemic until March 11, when the novel virus ravaged multiple continents. In between these dates, critics pointed out that “the WHO amplified Chinese claims and figures without signalling that they could be inaccurate,” and Tedros “continued to heap compliments on Beijing and dodged questions about worrying problems with the Chinese response.” This led to the Japanese deputy prime minister’s mocking that the WHO should be called “the China Health Organization.”.

Trump’s criticism of the UN health agency, therefore, is not entirely wrong though he similarly praised Beijing repeatedly for its transparency and for having the situation under control. To many critics, Trump’s action is a diversion of his own failure in responding to the crisis. His justification that the WHO ignored Taipei’s early warning has nevertheless underscored Taiwan’s invaluable contribution to international efforts in combatting infectious diseases.

Indeed, Taiwan has been mostly on its own in combating COVID-19. It is now clear that the WHO did not respond to Taipei’s early request for information in late December and did not include Taiwan in its January 22 emergency meeting, mainly because it did not want to offend Beijing’s leaders. These practices are inconsistent with the organisation’s stated goal of “the attainment by all peoples of highest possible level of health [emphasis added].” The exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO may further cause significant harm to the international community. As one of the most dynamic trading countries in the world, a virus originating in China may quickly spread to Taiwan, then to other parts of the world, a price that could be staggering to the international community.

Thanks to the bitter lessons of 2003, the self-relying island country has since devised an effective plan in preventing the spread of infectious diseases. Taipei has been publicly recognised for its achievement and great success in combating the deadly virus. Leaders of Japan, Canada and the U.S. have publicly supported Taiwan’s entry to the WHO. As a part of the “Taiwan can Help” campaign, millions of masks were sent from the island country to Europe and the U.S., where the deadly virus has wreaked havoc. Many world leaders openly expressed gratitude for Taiwan’s contributions. This includes the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and the Secretary of State of the U.S., Mike Pompeo. By accusing Taipei of provoking a “confrontation with the Motherland,” and consequently launching its own “mask diplomacy, Beijing’s reaction is hardly surprising. To be sure, there is no real altruism to Taiwan’s actions, and Taipei is presented with an opportunity to press the case for greater recognition, particularly regarding its exclusion from the WHO. As Beijing is perceived as a culprit for both the 2003 SARS epidemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan finds itself in an improved international standing that may be beneficial to its bid for membership in the WHO.

T.Y. Wang was recently appointed University Professor at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois, U.S.A. He is also Chair of the Department of Politics and Government. His publications include The Taiwan Voter, Christopher Achen and T.Y. Wang (eds). (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017).

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