Review & Outlook
May 7, 2003
Let Taiwan Into the WHO
What will it take before the United Nations will put human lives
above China's political posturing? Taiwanese doctors quarantined in
their SARS wards are still waiting for an answer to that question.
Over the past weekend, the U.N.'s World Health Organization sent a
team to the island to help tackle Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
But it seems clear that this was only possible because it got
Beijing's blessing to take this limited step (although the WHO
denies this). China claims Taiwan as part of its sovereign
territory, and is so relentless in its drive to deprive the island
of any recognition as a separate entity that it is prepared to
endanger the health of Taiwanese by keeping them out of the WHO.
Some may prematurely conclude that Beijing's decision to allow the
WHO doctors to make their trip as a sign that Beijing is relenting.
If only it were so. More likely, China is trying to preempt
criticism that its politicking in the U.N. has translated into lost
lives as a result of the rapid spread of the SARS virus. Beijing is
worried because another vote on whether to grant Taiwan observer
status within the WHO is coming up later this month, and Taiwan's
chances of admission should be better than ever.
Incredibly, Taiwan hasn't had any official contact with the WHO
since it lost its U.N. seat in 1971. In 1997 the island's government
launched a bid for observer status. This would seem to be an
uncontroversial move. The Vatican, Lichtenstein, the Palestine
Liberation Organization and the International Red Cross have all
held this status, so it needn't signal any kind of recognition of
Taiwan as a separate state from China, as Beijing seems to fear. In
fact, Taiwan has resorted to applying as a "health
entity," rather than a government, in order to overcome Chinese
Nevertheless, China and its allies have managed to defeat Taiwan's
last six applications, saying that it is unacceptable for Taiwan to
belong to the WHO in any capacity. Why? Well, because China accepts
the responsibility of caring for the health of its Taiwanese
That line looks pretty ridiculous in light of the way China covered
up the emergence of the very disease that now threatens Taiwan.
Evidently Beijing realizes this, and that's why last week it
relented and allowed two WHO doctors specializing in epidemiology
and virology to go the island. They will likely stay until May 16,
just three days before the opening of the World Health Assembly, the
body to which all the WHO's 191 member states and groups send
On the agenda, as always, is the possible admission of new members.
No doubt Beijing will argue that Taiwan wants to join in order to
further its campaign for international recognition. And that the
visit by the WHO doctors this month shows that in another crisis
Taiwan's lack of membership wouldn't impair the ability of the
international community to render aid.
Both of these arguments are wrong. Taiwan may be pursuing a campaign
for international recognition, but that is not the reason its health
authorities want to be in the WHO. There have been health crises in
Taiwan before SARS in which the WHO was not able to respond, such as
the 1998 outbreak of Type 71 enterovirus, which afflicted 300,000
children and killed 80, and the aftermath of a large earthquake in
Moreover, in any crisis, rapid response is key. Taiwan shouldn't
have to wait while Beijing ponders whether to give permission. In
the case of SARS, the disease was already spreading in the community
before the WHO got China's go-ahead to send help.
Beijing's allies in the WHO should also consider what the body would
gain from Taiwan's help. The island's doctors are already active in
international health issues. As a developed economy, Taiwan can
afford to contribute to the improvement of health care in poorer
The U.S. and Japan have supported Taiwan's past applications to join
the WHO, but they have been blocked by France, Spain, Pakistan,
Argentina and India, among others. These countries' diplomats should
be ashamed of playing Beijing's political game at the expense of the
world's health. Because of them, the WHO hasn't lived up to its
charter, which sets as its objective "the attainment by all
peoples of the highest possible level of health." It's time to
stop letting Beijing block that noble ideal.