Taiwan pushes to be included in the WHO as coronavirus spreads

By: Joseph Lyttleton
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As the spread of the coronavirus increasingly isolates China, Taiwan is seeking inclusion in the World Health Organization (WHO), the agency focused on issues of international health. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO has long been a source of frustration for the island state, but the growing pandemic has heightened the issue.

Taiwan recently received high-profile support for inclusion in the WHO from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. However, deeply divisive political and economic factors involving China’s claim of control over Taiwan make the issue difficult to resolve.

Why does Taiwan want to be part of the WHO?

As Reuter reports, Taiwan’s desire to be included in the WHO has been highlighted in the midst of the current coronavirus outbreak. Taiwanese officials have complained to the health organization that by not being a member, Taiwan isn’t receiving vital information in a timely manner. It also lacks a voice in international policies related to the spread of the disease and the steps being taken to contain it.

At the same time, many in the international community group Taiwan with China, resulting in Taiwanese citizens facing travel bans despite only 10 coronavirus cases being reported on the island. On Friday, January 31, Italy banned all flights coming from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Macau.

At the same time, Taiwan has banned foreigners who have visited mainland China in the previous 14 days from entering the island.

Coronavirus outside of mainland China

Shortly after the first cases of coronavirus were made public, Taiwan (along with Hong Kong and Singapore) began conducting airport screenings of passengers arriving from Wuhan, the area in China where the virus originated.

Additional cases of coronavirus continue to occur outside of China. On January 30, after the coronavirus had been found in nearly 20 countries, the WHO declared the outbreak to be a global emergency. Of the nearly 430 deaths directly linked to coronavirus, only two had occurred outside mainland China as of February 4.

Why is Taiwan not in the WHO?

Taiwan has been barred from membership in international associations such as the WHO because of political pressure from China, which refuses to accept the state as a separate governing entity. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry stated Taiwan can only be involved with the WHO under the “one China” principle, which denies the existence of two separate Chinese states.

China has long claimed Taiwan as a part of the People’s Republic of China and, therefore, under the rule of its government. However, Taiwan objects to China’s rule and considers itself a separate state, officially known as the Republic of China (ROC).

China’s considerable influence on the global stage, largely a result of its economic power, has kept most members of the United Nations from recognizing Taiwan as a separate state. As of 2019, only 14 of the 193 United Nations (UN) member states recognized Taiwan as independent of China.

In the 1970s, many of the most powerful global economies, including the US, the UK, and Japan, officially severed political ties with Taiwan in deference to China. In 1971, The UN removed the membership rights of Taiwan and it has remained outside the international agency ever since.

Growing support for Taiwan to join the WHO

Taiwan is starting to gain international support for its membership in the WHO. On Wednesday, January 29, after some hesitation, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Taiwan should be given an observer role in the WHO.

From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan (under the designation “Chinese Taipei”) was permitted observer status, meaning they were not official members but were allowed to appear at the WHO’s annual World Health Assembly meeting. However, despite the support of the US, Japan, and Germany, China has successfully pushed to bar Taiwan from being an observer since 2016.

On January 30, an official White House petition called “Take actions on supporting Taiwan for joining WHO” was launched. Since then, nearly 220,000 people have signed the petition, with only 100,000 signatures needed to require a response from the Trump administration.

What is the WHO?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has 194 member states, most of whom are members of the UN. Their site states the following:

“Our primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system. Our main areas of work are health systems; health through the life-course; noncommunicable and communicable diseases; preparedness, surveillance and response; and corporate services.”The WHO has responded to the coronavirus outbreak by working with international partners “to rapidly expand scientific knowledge on this new virus, to track the spread and virulence of the virus, and to provide advice to countries and individuals on measures to protect health and prevent the spread of this outbreak.”