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Could Taiwan help the WHO on coronavirus?

William Yang Taipei
April 10, 2020

Although Taiwan's public health system has largely contained COVID-19, Beijing keeps the island out of the WHO. Taiwan's performance in stopping a mass outbreak could draw calls for this to change.

Commuters wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread during morning rush hour traffic in Taipei, Taiwan April 8, 2020
Image: Reuters/A. Wang

Taiwan and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a contentious relationship. Tensions once again simmered to the surface Thursday after WHO Director General Tedro Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Taiwan's foreign ministry of targeting him in a "campaign of racism."

Beijing took advantage of this diplomatic row, and accused Taiwan of "venomous" attacks on the WHO while using the coronavirus pandemic to "seek independence."

Beijing considers self-governed Taiwan to be part of Chinese territory and excludes Taipei from membership in international organizations like the WHO.

However, Taiwan's handling of the pandemic has been cited as a success story. Other WHO members may now be more inclined to demand that the international public health body grant Taipei observer status. Taiwan argues that it could provide valuable input on best practices and public health strategies for other countries dealing with their own COVID-19 epidemics.

"To put it simply, the WHO is a UN organization, and the UN treats Taiwan as part of the People's Republic of China," said Chieh-Ting Yeh, vice chairman of Global Taiwan Institute.

"However, Since Beijing doesn't have any jurisdiction over Taiwan in reality, following through on that position in real life creates absurd situations."

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WHO 'did not take Taiwan seriously' on COVID-19?

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Taiwan has tried to position itself as a reliable international partner in the fight against the virus.

According to Taiwan's Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), Taiwan warned the WHO about the possibility of human to human transmission of the coronavirus as early as December 31, 2019.

However, the CECC told DW that upon receiving the information, the WHO merely acknowledged that the information had been transferred to the relevant department.

"The WHO didn't take the information provided by Taiwan seriously, and we believe that led to the delayed global response to the COVID19 pandemic," the CECC said in a written statement to DW.

"From our experience dealing with the SARS epidemic in 2003, we learned that viruses like this can be easily transmitted among people, so we decided to inform them. But the WHO let it fall on deaf ears."

Read more: How has Taiwan kept its coronavirus infection rate so low?

Taiwan says its COVID-19 information 'not shared'

To refute criticism that it has intentionally marginalized Taiwan, WHO issued a statement on March 29, claiming that it was closely following the development of the COVID-19 outbreak in Taiwan and that it had been learning lessons from how Taiwan is combating the pandemic.

"With respect to the COVID-19 outbreak, the WHO Secretariat works with Taiwanese health experts and authorities, following established procedures, to facilitate a fast and effective response and ensure connection and information flow," the WHO wrote in the statement.

Read more: Taiwan rejects WHO claims of racist campaign

However, Taiwan's CECC told DW that the statement does not reflect the reality of the WHO's interaction with Taiwan on the coronavirus pandemic.

The CECC argued that information shared by Taiwan was not shared with other WHO member states, despite communicating with the WHO through an "international health regulations" framework and accessing information from the WHO's internal event information site.

"Information provided by Taiwan never showed up on WHO's daily updates, which means other countries were unable to understand both the current situation in Taiwan and the measures that the Taiwanese government has adopted," Taiwan's CECC told DW.

The fight against coronavirus is not over yet

Experts point out that while Taiwan has successfully contained the coronavirus outbreak so far, lacking access to the WHO could still pose some risks to its fight against the pandemic.

"Fighting this pandemic will be a marathon, so it would still be helpful to Taiwan if it could be included in this multilateral platform and have timely information exchanges and discussion of solutions," Yu-Jie Chen, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, told DW.

Read more: Sieren's China: Can Taiwan become less isolated?

Taiwan has shared its resources and capabilities with the international community over the last few months, however, bilateral cooperation has its limits.

"Taiwan is donating masks, sharing tracing technology, and developing test kits and vaccines," said Chen. "Being excluded from the WHO will prevent Taiwan from using this multilateral platform to maximize its efforts. A multilateral system would help Taiwan reach out more effectively."

Chieh from the Global Taiwan Institute said the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a debate about Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO.

As the pandemic continues, Chieh said more governments will realize that Taiwan has done a lot to keep its citizens safe during the outbreak and it also has valuable advice to share with the world.

"I believe that in the long run, there will be more international demand for Taiwan to contribute to global health, despite Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO."

Taiwan's face mask success

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