Taiwan’s Covid-19 crisis adds gravity to its plea for a bigger role at the WHO

Taiwan is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases at the same time as many European and North American countries begin to reopen thanks to high vaccination rates and low case numbers.
Taiwan is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases at the same time as many European and North American countries begin to reopen thanks to high vaccination rates and low case numbers.
Image: REUTERS/Ann Wang
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In the run-up to this year’s World Health Assembly, Taiwan’s case for being granted observer status at the World Health Organization’s top annual meeting rested on the idea that it had much to share with the world in terms of public health, and that its limited role at the WHO prevented it from doing so.

An emerging Covid-19 crisis, however, has changed that message.

Taiwan is experiencing its worst outbreak yet. Despite being a Covid-free enclave for most of the pandemic thanks to a swift and stringent response early on, Taiwan saw more than 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 last week. Now Taiwan faces a full lockdown for the first time.

Despite holding out hope for an 11th-hour invite, Taiwan has not been called to participate in the 74th World Health Assembly (WHA), which runs from May 24 (today) until June 1. It is still pushing for inclusion, and some allies have proposed adding a supplementary item to the WHA’s agenda to discuss Taiwan’s future participation.

“The resurgence of Covid-19 in Taiwan shows that that the virus knows no borders,” said foreign finister Joseph Wu and health minister Chen Shih-chung in a joint statement. “There should be no gaps in the global fight against the pandemic. The world needs to share all the information and expertise to deal with the outbreak.”

Why is Taiwan not in the WHO?

The debate over Taiwan’s place at the World Health Assembly—or any global forum—invariably ends up being a debate about Taiwan’s geopolitical status.

When China’s civil war ended in victory for the Chinese Communist Party, which declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, rival Nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan, just off the mainland. In the following years, it was the Nationalist-ruled Republic of China—Taiwan’s formal name—that represented “China” at global institutions like the United Nations, of which it was a charter member.

In 1971, members of the UN voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the government representing China, and expel Taiwan. Meanwhile, the US’s own relations with Communist China were changing—it recognized the PRC as China in 1979, but simultaneously remained a staunch ally of Taiwan.

While the PRC has never governed in Taiwan, under Beijing’s One China Principle the Party considers the self-ruling island to be part of its territory, and lobbies countries and institutions to treat Taiwan accordingly.

As a result, Taiwan can’t participate in multilateral initiatives as a member state. China fears that “if Taiwan gets recognized as an independent government by something like the World Health Assembly, that could potentially be the first crack in Taiwan trying to get independent membership in the United Nations writ large,” Jeremy Youde, an expert on global health politics, previously told Quartz.

A temporary detente

After the 2009 H1N1 influenza epidemic, and as ties between Taipei and Beijing improved, China temporarily dropped objections to Taiwan sending an observer delegation to the World Health Assembly under the name “Chinese Taipei.” But that stopped after 2016, when Taiwan elected a president who became more explicit about rejecting Beijing’s One China view. Every year since then, Taiwan has campaigned to be allowed to attend the WHA as an observer—with no success.

“Under China’s obstruction, the WHO’s position remains rigid, and my country has not been invited to the meeting,” said Joanna Ou, the spokesperson for Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “But our government will continue to work hard until the last minute, calling on the WHO to face up to the importance and necessity of accepting Taiwan’s participation in the global public health and epidemic prevention system.”

Last year, Taiwanese officials accused the WHO of hindering its pandemic response by not granting them observer status. To that, the WHO says that Taiwan’s status doesn’t prevent it from working with its experts at a “technical and scientific level” on public health matters. It also says it doesn’t have the power to unilaterally grant Taiwan observer status at the WHA.

“Taiwanese observership at the World Health Assembly is a question for the 194 Member States of WHO to consider and decide upon,” a spokesperson for the WHO told Quartz via email.

One way in which the World Health Organization is working with Taiwan is via Covax—the struggling effort to help distribute vaccines more equitably globally. Although Taiwan is not a UN member, it received a share of the 1.3 million doses that the program set aside for non-United Nations members. But Taiwan’s current cache of 700,000 doses is hardly enough for a population of 24 million.

A limited vaccine supply has made matters worse in Taiwan—and here too its political status has played a role. It’s not keen to accept China’s vaccines, and only a small number of the doses it has ordered have arrived. It’s now working on a domestic vaccine, as well as strengthening a diplomatic effort to secure more doses.

What’s next for Taiwan and the WHO?

The campaign to change the terms of Taiwan’s status at the World Health Assembly has gained more visibility in the past year.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a global group of legislators concerned with China’s growing influence, launched a social media campaign to lobby the WHO on behalf of Taiwan. The French senate endorsed a resolution calling for Taiwan’s full participation in international institutions in the name of “inclusive multilateralism.” And earlier this month, after a meeting in London, the foreign and development ministers of G7 countries endorsed the following item in a joint communique:

We support Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organization forums and the World Health Assembly.

But it’s unclear if this growing support—or Taiwan’s current crisis—can make a difference.

According to Chunhuei Chi, a professor of international health at Oregon State University, this outbreak will neither harm nor hurt Taiwan’s WHA bid, because the base conditions remain the same: China is still many times more powerful in international institutions.

“Short of Taiwan accepting China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan or until the majority of members and the director-general recognize the absurdity of this issue, Taiwan will never be invited to the WHA,” he told Quartz. “That is the reality. It has nothing to do with health or the pandemic.”