Give Health Back to the People
Taiwan, China, the WHO, and politics
In the ongoing political tension between democratically self-ruled Taiwan and Communist China, many issues have fallen victim to China’s continued use of economic and diplomatic pressure to isolate Taiwan internationally in their effort to assert control over Taiwan’s sovereignty. But no issue thus far has proven to be more deadly than public health, as China’s reckless politicizing of global public health problems kills thousands of innocent lives and threatens to put millions more at serious risk.
One of the key organizations that China has managed to keep Taiwan out of is the World Health Organization, or WHO, the public health agency of the United Nations. The WHO is composed of 192 countries, including all UN Member States except Liechtenstein, and is governed through the World Health Assembly with representatives from each Member State. Territories that are not UN member states may apply to join as associated members with observer status, gaining full information available to official WHO members but holding limited participation and voting rights. Taiwan has not been a UN member since 1973, when they lost their seat to China, and China has used their growing diplomatic muscle to successfully block Taiwan’s membership ever since. Despite being a co-founder of the WHO in 1948 and a member for 25 years, Taiwan’s current political situation has left them no choice but to apply for observer status. Yet year after year, China’s “strong opposition” to Taiwan’s inclusion and continued insistence that it represents the Taiwanese people has scared away the Assembly votes necessary to grant Taiwan even this modest status, while full membership has been granted to such nations as Iran, Libya, North Korea, and Cuba, and observer status to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the Vatican, and the International Red Cross.
Taiwan’s complete exclusion from the WHO is not only morally unjust, but has proven to be costly to the health of the 23 million Taiwanese as well as people from countries around the world. Despite their claim, China has no authority or representation of public health issues in Taiwan, and instead has only facilitated inadequate responses to health crises in Taiwan and neighboring East Asian countries. Without a global forum for discussion, Taiwan is not privy to the essential health information enjoyed by WHO members, information that could have saved hundreds of lives in Taiwan during the 2003 SARS epidemic. Likewise, Taiwan, the third hardest hit area after China and Hong Kong, was not able to provide critical information about the epidemic to other countries, even though their advanced medical system proved to be one of the most effective in controlling the SARS outbreak. China even insisted that international organizations seek its permission first before sending medical assistance to Taiwan, an act that delayed and prevented crucial help. Sadly, this was not the only instance in Taiwan’s history that effective responses to health issues were hampered by politics with China.
Even this year, China continued to exert its political influence over international public health issues. Following the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia that killed hundreds of thousands, Taiwan offered $50 million in aid to victims in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other stricken areas. But the UN and WHO, at the strong request of the Chinese government, turned down Taiwan’s offer, even as they criticized the US for not providing enough. China is clearly sending a message that it does not want Taiwan to independently be participating in international efforts, no matter how charitable.
In April 2002, the U.S. House Policy Committee came out with a statement entitled “Health Should Not Be a Political Weapon: Why Taiwan Must No Longer Be Excluded from the World Health Organization.” In it, they outline in great detail the dangerous effects Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO has had, the many reasons why Taiwan should be granted observer status at the very least, and the growing international support for Taiwan’s participation. But as Taiwan’s continued exclusion has shown, more needs to be done to stop this atrocious politicizing of public health, and to give health back to the people.
Published: Saturday, March 26, 2005