By Nina Larson

The World Health Organization is facing renewed pleas to allow Taiwan to participate in a key international meeting amid fears its exclusion could jeopardise efforts to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.

As many parts of the world are reeling from surging numbers of Covid-19 infections and deaths, the WHO is due Monday to resume its main annual meeting, which was cut short in May.

world health organization
WHO Headquarters main conference room. Photo: WHO.

But while the World Health Assembly (WHA) is expected to focus heavily on international coordination of the pandemic response, one international actor will not be present.

Taiwan has been excluded from the WHO and a number of other international organisations amid pressure from China, which regards the self-ruled democratic island of 23 million people as its own territory.

But critics insist this does not make sense.

They point to the territory’s remarkable success in combatting Covid-19, with only seven deaths and fewer than 600 infections since the start of the pandemic. 

coronavirus covid-19 microscope virus cell
Covid-19 under an electron microscope. File photo: NIAID-RML.

The World Medical Association (WMA), a confederation of national medical associations that jointly represent more than 10 million physicians, called Thursday for that to change.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is proof that cooperation for and with all health care systems in the world is necessary,” WMA chairman Frank Montgomery said in an open letter to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We believe it is both cynical and counterproductive to continue excluding the health representatives from Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly.” 

‘A big gap’

Next week’s meeting comes as the novel coronavirus has killed more than 1.2 million people and infected over 48 million globally since it first surfaced in China late last year.

The United States and others have long called on the UN health agency to at least give Taiwan back the observer status it enjoyed until 2016, and the calls have grown in urgency amid the coronavirus crisis.

Since the first portion of the 2020 WHA lasted only two days instead of the usual three weeks, members agreed back in May to postpone discussion of the contentious Taiwan issue until November.

Taiwan Taipei flag
Photo: Olaer/Elmer Anthony via Flickr.

Over a dozen countries, including Belize, Guatemala, the Marshall Islands and Honduras, have proposed to discuss whether to allow Taiwan to participate as an observer, but it remains unclear whether the issue will even be allowed onto the agenda.

Taiwan and its allies argue that the international community would have a lot to gain by integrating it into the discussion.

They also warn that leaving Taiwan out in the cold, without direct access to information, could threaten efforts to halt the pandemic.

“We cannot afford a gap when it comes to this pandemic, but we are seeing a big gap,” Taiwan’s ambassador in Geneva Wang Liang-Yu told AFP last week.

WHO chief Tedros has said Taiwan’s participation can only be decided by member states with the consent of “the relevant government” — a reference to Beijing.

But Wang insisted the WHO on its own “does have the authority to invite Taiwan as an observer.” 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (left). File photo: UN.

Taiwan — officially the Republic of China — was a founding member of the WHO when the global health body was created in 1948.

But it was expelled in 1972 a year after losing the “China” seat at the United Nations to the People’s Republic of China.

Between 2009 and 2016 Beijing allowed Taiwan to attend the WHA as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei”.

It lost that status with the election in Taiwan of President Tsai Ing-wen who views the island as a de facto independent nation and does not subscribe to Beijing’s idea that it belongs to a “one China”.

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