As if it hadn’t already earned significant criticism already, the World Health Organization (WHO) generated fresh controversy recently when one of its top officials repeatedly refused to discuss Taiwan in a televised interview with a Hong Kong RTHK journalist.

Bruce Aylward, a senior advisor for the WHO, not only refused to answer Yvonne Tang’s questions about Taiwan’s membership bid but hung up after she repeated it.

Bruce Aylward
RTHK’s Yvonne Tong (left) and the World Health Organization’s Bruce Aylward (right). Photo: RTHK screenshot.

When Tang called back, Aylward said they had already talked about China, implying that Taiwan was part of the country. While embarrassing, the whole charade of Aylward avoiding any discussion of Taiwan reflects the shambolic way in which Taiwan has been excluded by the WHO and other multilateral organisations.

As if to emphasise this, WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lashed out at Taiwan on April 9 for alleged racist attacks and claimed Taiwan’s foreign ministry was complicit. Taiwan quickly refuted this but it’s clear that the WHO leadership has a bias against Taiwan.

At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has swept across the world, infecting more than 1,400,000 people and killing well over 82,000, it is obscene that a nation of over 23 million can be shut out by the WHO. Taiwan is not a member of the WHO and is fully excluded from all its forums and activities. 

This is because China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and refuses to acknowledge it as a sovereign state. As such, China opposes Taiwan’s participation in the international stage. This includes the United Nations, where Taiwan is totally excluded, and the Olympics, where Taiwan participates under the name “Chinese Taipei” and is not allowed to use its own flag.  

It is an absolute shame that the WHO has barred Taiwan for three major reasons.

taiwan flag
Photo: Taiwan Gov’t.

First, there is the humanitarian aspect of barring an island of 23.7 million people from a global multilateral organisation that oversees international public health.

Second, there is the global health cost to excluding a nation that has significant viral epidemic expertise gained from SARS in 2003, a strong medical research sector, and one of the world’s best health systems. This deprives countries around the world of being able to access and benefit from Taiwan’s medical knowledge and vice versa.

Third, by allowing China to dominate the matter of Taiwan’s exclusion, this in effect politicises the WHO’s management of global health and hampers it from properly dealing with outbreaks, which causes the loss of lives and jobs.

All three reasons have materialised during the coronavirus pandemic.

Besides being barred from the WHO as a member, Taiwan also cannot attend the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly as an observer, which it was able to for a few years in the mid-2010s. And when the WHO held a global coronavirus summit in Geneva in February, Taiwanese officials were not allowed to attend, but merely able to view the proceedings online.

World Health Organization
World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: U.S. Mission Geneva/Eric Bridiers.

Taiwan is not able to receive information directly from the WHO, meaning that it must depend on friendly countries and other third parties for vital health data on outbreaks. To cope with this, Taiwan took the initiative as soon as it heard of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in December. Taiwan sent medical experts there and inspected passengers on flights coming from Wuhan from December 31.

As the outbreak worsened, Taiwan stepped up its measures, preventing Taiwanese groups from going to Wuhan, implementing a ban on visitors from China in early February, and took control of facemask supplies.

Taiwan also cannot share information directly through the WHO, which led to one of the most egregious missteps by the WHO during this pandemic.

Taiwan said it tried to notify the WHO in December 31 about the coronavirus potential human-to-human transmission, but its message went unheeded as the organisation refused to answer or transmit it through its internal members’ data exchange website. Instead, for most of January, the WHO followed China in claiming there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

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File photo: Pixabay.

Taiwan went ahead with its coronavirus strategy based on the possibility of human-to-human transmission, but most of the world was misled by statements put out by China and the WHO that said this wasn’t possible.

On January 20, China admitted that the coronavirus was indeed spreading between people. Valuable weeks were lost as countries were lulled into complacency by a false sense of security.

The WHO’s mistreatment of Taiwan is amplified by its very conspicuous obsequiousness towards China. Besides repeatedly flattering China and Xi Jinping, the WHO has also parroted Chinese talking points about the coronavirus such as claiming there was no human-to-human coronavirus transaction.

When countries like the US and Australia imposed flight travel bans against China in January, the WHO echoed China by slamming the restrictions, claiming that the maintenance of trade and travel was essential. By now, there is no question over the necessity of travel bans, with China in effect halting air travel from foreign countries. 

Taiwan is doing a good job so far in containing its coronavirus outbreak, with 373 cases (up to April 7), and schools, businesses and offices still open. All the vigilance, policies and measures have paid off without having to resort to draconian measures in an attempt to maintain a functioning society.

China’s Neighbors Respect Rights to Combat Coronavirus - Taiwan, Hong Kong Show Benefits of Open Societies human rights watch maya wang
File photo: GovHK.

Taiwan is directly helping foreign countries by donating millions of masks to the US, the EU, and its diplomatic allies, and sharing its expertise and data. Taiwan signed an agreement with the Czech Republic to collaborate on research and develop test kits and medication, and in March, helped its Pacific ally Palau to diagnose a suspected case.

Despite doing all right on its own, Taiwan is asking to become part of the WHO and contribute to global efforts. The WHO should allow Taiwan to become a member, enabling it to share its knowledge and cooperate with more nations on a greater scale.

If this is a step too bold for now, because it would no doubt upset China, then Taiwan should at least be granted observer status again.

The WHO seriously needs to sort itself out. The organisation has to realise how flawed its approach to leadership has been, not only with regards to Taiwan, but to the entire coronavirus pandemic.

What is a worse travesty than Taiwan being denied membership to the WHO is the organisation’s feeble management of the pandemic and subservience to China.

Hilton Yip is a writer who has worked in Taipei, Beijing, and Hong Kong over the past decade. He has a strong interest in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.