The World Health Assembly (WHA) held its annual meeting this week; Taiwan was still not represented. Its journalists were also barred from covering the online-only proceedings, despite the nation’s clearly demonstrated pandemic expertise that has set an example for the world.
When the SARS epidemic reached Taiwan from southern China in 2003, dozens of lives were lost, but its health experts learned the importance of general testing, masks, technology to locate infected persons, swift decisions and quarantines. The lessons were applied immediately across Taiwan when COVID-19 arrived this year.
From 2009 to 2016, Taiwan participated as an observer in the assembly under the name “Chinese Taipei” when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) held the presidency. Since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party won the national elections, Beijing has regrettably managed to persuade the WHO not to invite Taiwan.
If the WHO and its members had adapted Taiwan’s practices in confronting COVID-19 early this year, including ignoring outbreak denials from Beijing and imposing timely bans on flights from Wuhan and later from all of China, many of the 4.6 million confirmed cases and 312,381 deaths worldwide as of Sunday could have been avoided, along with much economic hardship.
The 27 EU nations, Australia and the US are quite reasonably now demanding an independent investigation of the WHO’s complicity with Beijing.
German intelligence reported recently that China’s president pressured the WHO director-general to delay issuing a global warning about COVID-19 in January. The CIA and the US Department of Homeland Security concluded that Beijing suppressed information about the outbreak so it could buy up medical supplies around the world. The University of Southhampton concluded in its study that 95 percent of the infections could have been avoided if Beijing had acted three weeks earlier.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) recently cited a secret memorandum signed between Beijing and the WHO in 2005 as directly impacting Taiwan’s participation at the annual WHA and related WHO events.
As a result of the agreement, Taipei would require an additional international push to attend the WHA, Wu told lawmakers in Taipei. Despite growing support (including Canada), he predicted correctly that it would be “extremely difficult” for Taiwan to secure an invitation to this year’s virtual meeting.
The agreement’s contents were never made public, but details obtained by Taipei in 2007 stipulate that Taiwan must apply for WHO technical assistance through China and that all exchanges between Taiwan and the WHO must be approved by Beijing.
In a related development, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called attention to the WHO ban on Taiwanese journalists, denying them the right to cover meetings and press conferences of the global healthcare system, including the WHA. RSF has publicly noted that the reason for the WHO’s ban on Taiwan’s journalists is its refusal to acknowledge Taiwan and its passport due to political pressure from China.
“Denying Taiwanese journalists’ access to WHO and UN activities is a flagrant violation of the right to seek and receive information that is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said Cedric Alviani, head of RSF’s East Asia bureau.
In contrast to the Chinese Communist Party — which hides the truth and punishes whistle-blowers — Taiwan has demonstrated the importance of transparency and the role of a free media. Taiwan ranked 43rd out of 180 nations in RSF’s world press freedom rankings for this year, while China was 177th.
Denying Taiwanese journalists’ access to WHO meetings is even more ironic following UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ statement on World Press Freedom Day: “Journalists provide an antidote to COVID-19 misinformation.”
In light of the ideals of media freedom expressed by Guterres, it is inexcusable that Taiwan’s journalists are still denied access to international meetings of a UN agency.
Equally objectionable is the ongoing lockdown by the WHO on advice and expertise about COVID-19 from the democratic nation that contained it much better than most of the 193 WHO member states.
David Kilgour is a former Canadian lawmaker who served as Canadian secretary of state for Asia-Pacific from 2002 to 2003, and is an international patron of Hong Kong Watch. Susan Korah is a Canadian journalist based in Ottawa. Robert Henderson does international assessments and international elections monitoring.
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