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    Interview with Taiwan's Health Minister on Taiwan's WHO Bid

INTERVIEW WITH TAIWAN'S HEALTH MINISTER ON TAIWAN'S WHO BID

Taipei, July 22 (CNA) Minister of Health Lee Ming-liang was interviewed by Central News Agency's contributing writer Mark Wolfe on July 9. He spoke on the need for Taiwan to participate in the World Health Organization (WHO) as an observer. Lee, formerly president of the Tzu Chi College of Medicine and Humanities in Hualien, also elaborated on the repercussions of being sidelined by the WHO and his hope for the future.

CNA: On May 11 of this year, you were quoted in the local media as saying: "Taiwan's participation in the WHO is an extremely complicated political issue." Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Lee: Well, actually it depends on how you see that. It's complicated in a sense in that it has a political component in it and of course you know that it depends on which angle you see it. From our side it's purely humanitarian - a health issue. From the other side, the Communist Chinese side, it's a political issue. Now since we cannot detach this issue from the communist view.... Regardless how we want to see it, you cannot get free from the Chinese communists' view. From our side it is purely a humanitarian issue.

CNA: This year was the first year that the word Taiwan was used in the effort to enter the WHO as an observer. Since mainland China considers Taiwan officially as "China, Taiwan province," isn't using Taiwan going to make things more difficult politically?

Lee: The allies [of the Republic of China] used the "Republic of China, Taiwan" before, as usual. Then about a month before the middle of May, [President Chen Shui-bian] asked the premier to form an interdepartmental, inter-ministerial team and assigned me as the initial person in charge of that.

When we discussed the issue of what name we should use - Republic of China, Taiwan, as had been officially submitted this year or, verbally, when we or others are talking about the issue, [we decided to] just drop everything except Taiwan because it is very, very confusing. Ask people what's the difference between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China? It's very confusing. So after a thorough discussion, we came to the conclusion that this time when we go out - verbally - we just use Taiwan, make it simple and drop everything. So what you said about Taiwan is correct, but only verbally. [When people ask], "Where do you come from?" [We answer], "From Taiwan."

CNA: So the written parts were the same as before?

Lee: Right, because that was [decided] before [I was minister]. But now we can ask, "How about the next time?" Now, actually when we use the term "Taiwan, ROC," and since for convenience we just drop "ROC," it is just like before - "ROC, Taiwan," for convenience we drop "Taiwan." All right? Of course you cannot use such a complicated thing for such a simple answer.

When I chose "Taiwan, ROC" I asked the Executive Yuan for permission. Actually, I said, "What name should I use?"

CNA: So next time it will just be "Taiwan"?

Lee: I don't know. I presume so. Now would that make the matter worse? I don't know. It depends on how you see that. You can always make it worse, regardless...with China.

CNA: In the past, there appears to have been some lack of communication or cooperation between the Department of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and perhaps other agencies. How serious was the problem and how has it been addressed?

Lee: I admit that the problem did exist before. I guess [it] is understandable that if nobody was assigned to lead... or be responsible for that, then naturally there will be a problem. We have the professional people and knowledge, yet we don't have the resources. We don't have the necessary diplomatic skills. We don't know how to do that.

And yet, it's an issue of mixed problems. In other words, you need political skill as well as professional knowledge. So really, as far as I am concerned, it doesn't matter who leads, but the Department of Health is willing to do whatever its share is [to help].

OK, in the past we did have this problem of coordinating. For example, if I wanted to ask the people from the [ministry of] foreign affairs who live in Geneva - I can't order them to do anything.

CNA: You have to go through channels....

Lee: Of course, right. And we don't have any single person from the Department of Health stationed outside [Taiwan]. We don't have the financial resources either. So everything has to go through coordinated communications, and of course this creates problems. (To be continued)

CNA: This was before or this year?

Lee: This is after this time. Remember that I only took over this job a couple of weeks before [the WHO meeting this year], so I didn't get the time to solve these problems before I went [to Geneva]. But we made it work through mutual understanding. We solved our problems through personal relations rather than official channels.

CNA: Are you working on establishing official channels?

Lee: We are doing it now. We are in the process...I believe next week I'm going to talk to the Executive Yuan and see what we can do to help this situation.

CNA: So the Department of Health will be in the leadership role?

Lee: Yes. But the resources will have to be allocated from the [Ministry of] Foreign Affairs to the Department of Health.

CNA: There have been a number of articles written by the government on the issue of Taiwan being unable to obtain information on new health care polices and development directly from the WHO. Why is it important to get information directly from the WHO? Isn't medical information available from other agencies, hospitals, universities, the Internet or private organizations?

Lee: First of all is time and then the completeness [of the information] ...whether we can get it in time or get a complete picture or not. Much information from the WHO is available on the Internet, but only members of the WHO have access to it.

CNA: Aren't there private avenues? Hospitals or researchers?

Lee: Yes, you can always do this indirectly, but certainly it is not the best way to do it. CNA: So the WHO has information that no one else has? Lee: Yes, of course. They have their own Web site, they have their own evaluations and even if we want to be evaluated as part of the system, we cannot.

For example, our national health insurance program - we'd like to know how well we are doing compared to other countries. They [the WHO] come out with a complete report and we have to go through friends to indirectly get a copy.

CNA: You can get the information indirectly, though?

Lee: Yes, you can get it indirectly, but I don't know how complete it is. I mean if you ask for "A" indirectly, you might get "A," but they might have "A, B, C" that we don't know about. So, in that case, we wouldn't have the complete [information].

CNA: Taiwan often points to the enterovirus outbreak in 1998 to show the need for WHO participation. What help could the WHO have provided that could not have been obtained elsewhere during the outbreak?

Lee: Well, first of all, you need to share the [information on the] epidemiology. Without proper channels you really have to figure out what you have by asking from country to country to country, instead of [using the WHO] network that has an association with groups of people that constantly meet. That's number one. Number two is identification of the specific strain of a virus. The final conclusion [regarding the 1998 enterovirus outbreak] was arrived at after sending a sample to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] in the United States through a private channel - a personal friend.

There was some delay in determining the strain of the virus. Finally we got it.

CNA: If you had had WHO access...?

Lee: They could have stepped in. They have a group of experts that could come in immediately as a mobile team. Like a fire department goes over here "What's going on, can we help?" Rather than actually being literally left on your own.

CNA: So, in a sense, because Taiwan couldn't get access to the WHO, people probably died because of that.

Lee: Some. I cannot say all of them or how many of them - I can't say that. But certainly if we say that we were left alone to fight that, at least in the initial stages, it is not an understatement. Fortunately, Taiwan is quite good. We can solve problems, although not as quickly or as well as we would like.

CNA: Wouldn't it be wise to ignore politics and accept any name that China wants as long as the people of Taiwan can be represented in the WHO? And if not, isn't Taiwan putting politics ahead of health just as much as China?

Lee: Well...it's not our fault and that's not fair to us.

CNA: Couldn't Taiwan say, on a case-by-case basis, "We need your help; you can call us Taiwan province?"

Lee: I don't think it's as simple as that. Obviously it involves national dignity. Certainly it's not for me, at this level, to decide. So...it's a very sensitive issue, let me put it that way. So when you come to an issue like this...I don't think that it's nationally acceptable at this point.

CNA: China's stand is clear: The WHO is part of the U.N., and the U.N. accepts that there is only one China with its government centered in Beijing. As long as the U.N. accepts Beijing's "one China" principle, is there any hope that Taiwan will ever be granted even observer status in the WHO?

Lee: I don't see why not. First of all, we are not challenging the "one China" policy which the U.N. stands by. We are not asking for membership. We are asking for observer status, which has nothing to do with a nationality.

For example, the Red Cross is an observer, as is the PLO, the Vatican and a few others. So if we consider that there are 23 million people, or more now [on Taiwan], it is a significant number of people who are left outside of the WHO...you can solve that issue by giving them an observership - let them participate, let them be part of the system to be taken care of as well as to take care of others.

I think it's fair to have this kind of arrangement and I'm sure that lots of people can accept that. Even the United States is turning to that.

CNA: It seems that Beijing will never allow that.

Lee: Well, yes, but when you have the momentum to turn the tide - to turn one side - I'm sure they probably will... if more than half of the people say that this is not an unreasonable idea, not by challenging you on who is the only China.

Let's say this: Taiwan's issues will be solved in the future, right? But in the meantime, what are you going to do? Leave 23 million people out there until this issue is solved, which may require 50 years, 100 years? Why can't we ask for an interim solution? Putting politics aside for the time being?

CNA: There seems to have been some optimism after your return from the last WHO meeting in Geneva. What are your feelings about the future?

Lee: Well, it is not me or the people on this island to decide, to tell you the truth. The reason that we feel more optimistic, including myself, is that we can feel some change in the United States, which is encouraging. I had a chance to meet with the secretary of health, Tommy Thompson, in Geneva and it was the first time in 20-some years - after the break in the diplomatic relationship...he clearly stated that the United States position is in support of Taiwan in some way of participating in activities, although he stopped short of mentioning observer status.

At least we can see a change in the atmosphere. In the last half-year we have had some people visiting places in Europe. They have had been more or less encouraged. I have some friends in Sweden and Denmark and they say that when the time is right, they will certainly include us.

Professionally we have some sort of communication and exchanges of people and good friends in Europe, and they are professional, and they all agree that this is a kind of nonsense [to exclude Taiwan].

CNA: So if there were enough support, it wouldn't matter what Beijing thought?

Lee: Right. They don't have any veto there [in the WHO].

 

 
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