The reappearance of the SARS virus in China late last month focusses attention on whether politics is preventing an international response to the epidemic. Jeff Babb reports.
Soon, Taiwan will once again attempt to gain entry to the World Health Organisation – not as a sovereign nation, but as an observer, or “health entity”.
The reasons for Taiwan gaining entry to the WHO seem obvious – it is has a world class health system that has contributed to one of the highest life expectancies in Asia, very low infant and maternal mortality rates, successfully eradicated a range of diseases, including the scourge of malaria, and has a range of preventative health programs. It has a lot to contribute to the WHO.
What is more, Taiwan is the “missing link” in WHO’s coverage – it was left out of the loop when the Asian region was hit by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This lack of coverage perhaps resulted in more deaths in Taiwan, as Taiwan was unable to gain access to WHO expertise.
The World Health Assembly – before which Taiwan must have its case heard – allows for the participation of observers, as distinct from states, without involving issues of sovereignty. Current observers include the Palestinian Authority, the Holy See, the Order of Malta and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent.
Seeking entry to the WHO not as a sovereign nation, but as a “health entity” is a formula that has allowed Taiwan to participate in other organisations, notably APEC, in which both China and Taiwan participate in a productive fashion.
Then what’s the problem? As always in questions about Taiwan, it is China. China argues that it can take care of the health of the 23 million people on Taiwan by itself. This is because China refuses to recognise Taiwan as anything other than a province of China. Thus, Taiwan cannot have observer status at the WHO as it is not an entity – even a “health entity” – in its own right.
This, notwithstanding the fact that China’s Communist system has trouble even today looking after its own people – as evidenced by the sacking of the previous health minister for covering up the SARS virus in the first place, thus costing lives, not only in China, but in other parts of the world.
Support for Taiwan’s WHO entry is not lacking. Before last month’s presidential election in Taiwan, the US undertook to assist Taiwan gain entry to bodies where statehood is not a requirement, and undertook to actively promote Taiwan’s entry to the WHO.
Why, in broad terms, is entry to the WHO important to Taiwan – and the world? The WHO is a United Nations agency coordinating health programs around the world. Thus, for the international community to fight epidemics, which do not recognise international political boundaries, it’s vitally important to have seamless coverage – as demonstrated by the SARS epidemic.
For the people of Taiwan, it’s important to have access to the latest information. These epidemics affecting the people of Taiwan have happened before, as for example some years ago the lethal foot-and-mouth disease outbreak among young children.
International recognition of Taiwan’s bid to join the WHO is widespread. The Washington Post, for example, on May 20 last year, summed up the situation in an editorial after the WHA rejected Taiwan’s last attempt to enter the WHO.
“For years, China has used its political power in the United Nations system as a tool to prevent Taiwan from gaining access to the technical expertise of the WHO.
“In an era when diseases such as SARS travel quickly across borders, this is no longer acceptable …
“For the UN system to be taken seriously, it also has to junk some of the political baggage it has acquired over the years.
“The WHO needs to recognise that China’s objection to Taiwanese independence is no longer a good reason to deny Taiwan the help it needs to combat the health problems of the future.”
Are things likely to change? The people of Taiwan are now supported in their attempt to gain entry to the WHO by the diplomatic weight of the United States. However, this may not be enough.
Taiwan must mobilise all its allies and influence around the world to gain entry to this important body. This year, SARS did not reappear as many health experts had feared, but this is not enough to take the pressure off the WHO to allow the people of Taiwan to have entry to this vital UN agency. Who can tell from where the next epidemic of global proportions will arise?
If a killer-flu arises, it will be most likely in South China, where animals and humans, especially pigs and poultry, live in close proximity. With the thousands of people travelling daily between Taiwan and China – and between Taiwan and the rest of the world – there is no telling how devastating such an outbreak could be, with the missing Taiwan link.
Taiwan needs the concerted efforts of the international community to allow its entry to the WHO – now.