Taiwan’s COVID-19 Success Highlights Global Risks of Diplomatic Isolation

As countries across the globe continue struggling to flatten their domestic epidemic curves, Beijing has sought to cast itself as a victor against COVID-19, and hence a natural leader in global pandemic efforts–a hard sell to many, as Beijing’s official COVID-19 statistics have been questioned by Chinese citizens and international experts, and China has reportedly been profiteering off of faulty testing and protective gear. Meanwhile, the continuing successes in Taiwan’s fight against the virus have made the island nation a model for effective response. While Taiwan’s forced isolation from the world order has somewhat obscured its successes, the situation has provided Taipei with an opportunity to assert itself on the global stage.

Despite Taiwan being just over 100 miles from the mainland and among the first countries to report cases, Taiwanese health authorities have so far confirmed only 380 cases of COVID-19 and five related deaths. While Taiwan’s physical proximity to China may suggest a relatively high risk of mass infection, its political relationship with and long history facing hostility from the mainland help to explain its successful response. As a de facto sovereign democracy with no seat at the United Nations, under near-constant military threat, and with dwindling formal diplomatic partners, Taiwan is well acquainted with and experienced in countering CCP propaganda and disinformation. Additionally, hard-learned lessons from the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic went a long way in guiding Taipei’s domestic response measures, as James Griffiths reports for CNN:

During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, Taiwan was among the worst-hit territories, along with Hong Kong and southern China. More than 150,000 people were quarantined on the island — 180 kilometers (110 miles) off China’s southeastern coast — and 181 people died.

While SARS now pales in comparison to the current crisis, it sent shockwaves through much of Asia and cast a long shadow over how people responded to future outbreaks. This helped many parts of the region react faster to the current coronavirus outbreak and take the danger more seriously than in other parts of the world, both at a governmental and societal level, with border controls and the wearing of face masks quickly becoming routine as early as January in many areas.

Taiwan has a world-class health care system, with universal coverage. As news of the coronavirus began to emerge from Wuhan in the run up to the Lunar New Year, officials at Taiwan’s National Health Command Center (NHCC) — set up in the wake of SARS — moved quickly to respond to the potential threat, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). […] [Source]

See also an Atlantic Council blogpost by Chang-Ching Tu, outlining four clear lessons to take away from Taiwan’s COVID-19 experience.

Despite its obvious upper-hand in preparation for the current pandemic, Taiwan’s uncertain geopolitical status may have largely prevented its successful experience from effectively guiding ongoing global public health efforts. Taiwan and the World Health Organization–which in 2017 revoked Taiwan’s short-lived observer status at the World Health Assembly–are currently involved in a spat over the WHO’s unwillingness to work with Taipei, the organization’s parallel softness on Beijing, and the global implications of those political moves.

On first news of a mysterious illness in Wuhan last year–as health workers were being penalized by Wuhan authorities for spreading “rumors” about a deadly new virus–Taipei began health inspections on all flights coming from Wuhan. When Chinese and WHO officials offered statements urging calm and continued trade and travel, Taipei–ever wary of official data from Beijing–sent health experts to Wuhan who concluded that the novel coronavirus could be far more hazardous. They shared their findings with the WHO on December 31, but despite evidence the WHO continues to deny receipt. When the WHO parroted China’s claims in mid-January that the virus didn’t appear to spread by human-to-human transmission, Taipei already had sent them data suggesting the opposite.

Following a highly awkward interview last month with Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK in which a WHO official repeatedly dodged a general question about Taiwan’s COVID-19 successes, once with an apparently intentional closing of the video call, the WHO insisted that it does work with Taiwanese health authorities. Taipei replied by highlighting the “shared aspiration of the people of Taiwan to participate in the WHO,” the WHO’s running exclusion of Taiwan as an observer, and the fact that the WHO doesn’t share information provided by Taiwan with member states.

Last week, the BBC reported further on the awkward call between RTHK journalist Yvonne Tong and WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward, when the latter repeatedly refused to acknowledge a question about Taiwan. (The Hong Kong government has since publicly reprimanded Tong and RTHK for “breaching the One-China principle.”) The report uses Aylward’s reaction as a representation of Taipei’s troubled relationship with the WHO:

Aylward’s reaction was widely seen as indicative of the awkward relationship the WHO has with Taiwan, which is not allowed to be a member state.

[…] The exclusion, coupled with the WHO’s repeated praise of China’s response to the outbreak – which public health experts have criticised – has led some to accuse the organisation of political bias towards China, a major contributor to the organisation.

[…]”We hope through the test of this epidemic, the WHO can recognise clearly that epidemics do not have national borders, no one place should be left out because any place that is left out could become a loophole… any place’s strength shouldn’t be neglected so that it can make contributions to the world,” said Taiwan’s health minister Chen Shih-chung at a recent press conference.

Taiwan has also pointed out that it learned many lessons from managing its coronavirus outbreak which could be shared with the world. The island has been praised for its swift and decisive handling of its epidemic, which has been relatively controlled and has seen few deaths. [Source]

At The Nation, Wilfred Chan explains how the world pays the price for the WHO’s refusal to work with Taipei, asking “what if the legitimacy in question here were not Taiwan’s–but that of the system that the WHO represents?”

[…] In spite of its decisive response, Taiwan was shut out of the WHO’s emergency meeting on January 22, where representatives from 16 countries—including the PRC, Japan, South Korea, and the United States—opted to delay declaring the coronavirus a global health emergency.

[…] The WHO has never operated free from state interests. Like other international agencies founded under the UN in the wake of World War II, it originated as a tool of the 20th century US-led world order. In 1954, Republican Representative Frances P. Bolton articulated the US interest in the WHO in a speech on the anniversary of the agency’s founding: “In our global struggle against communism, one of our principal endeavors is to keep the free world strong. Disease breeds poverty and poverty breeds further disease. International communism thrives on both.” Health was a means to a geopolitical end.

[… Financial pressure along with Trump administration threats to slash contributions] could explain why the WHO is looking to China. This dynamic is especially apparent within the WHA, which elects the WHO’s director-general every five years. Competition for the post is fierce, and countries with more leverage lobby other countries into forming voting coalitions, in a secretive process that has included accusations of “rampant” bribery. Beijing has proved especially adept at this game […].

[…] The coronavirus pandemic is already a profound tragedy. We can avoid further heartache by ending our reliance on a global health system that sees the world as competing states. Instead, we need to focus on creating bottom-up, transnational mutualism between health workers, researchers, and communities. [Source]

The current WHO director-general, Ethiopian Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rose to the head of the organization in 2017 with China’s direct support, despite accusations of cover-up scandals and formal opposition back home. At The National Interest last month, Peter Hasson described the history of Tedros’ relationship with China, and compared his regular praise and approval of Beijing’s COVID-19 response with the documented record of opacity, mismanagement, disinformation, and relevant domestic outrage over the last three months:

[…] Tedros’s close relationship with China isn’t new.

He worked closely with China during his time as Ethiopia’s health minister, and China backed Tedros’s 2017 bid for WHO director-general, media outlets noted at the time.

[…] Just months after taking over at the WHO, Tedros tapped former Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe, a notorious human rights violator, to be a UN Goodwill ambassador and only backed down after an international outcry.

“Diplomats said [Mugabe’s] appointment was a political payoff from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — the WHO’s first African director-general — to China, a long-time ally of Mugabe, and the 50 or so African states that helped to secure Tedros’s election earlier this year,” Sunday Times columnist Rebecca Myers wrote in October 2017.

[…] Washington Post columnist Frida Ghitis similarly noted at the time that China “worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help Tedros defeat the United Kingdom candidate for the WHO job, David Nabarro. Tedros’s victory was also a victory for Beijing, whose leader Xi Jinping has made public his goal of flexing China’s muscle in the world.” [Source]

BBC News relays a theory that Tedros’ reluctance to criticize China stems from a benevolent goal, which appears to be failing:

“His strategy is to coax China to transparency and international co-operation rather than criticising the government,” says Lawrence Gostin, Professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University.

But has that actually worked?

Some WHO watchers have criticised the effusive praise heaped on China for its containment measures.

After his trip to Beijing, Dr Tedros said China had set “a new standard for outbreak control”.

A few days later, he told world leaders meeting at the Munich Security Conference that China’s actions had “bought the world time”.

Such comments sit uneasily with the knowledge that China arrested health workers who first raised the alarm about the outbreak. […] [Source]

An opinion article at The Hill last month argued that both Tedros and Beijing should be held accountable for the pandemic.

This week, Tedros accused Taipei of launching an organized, “racist” campaign against him, a claim Taipei quickly rejected. At The Washington Post. Gerry Shih reports:

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said the allegations by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus were groundless and demanded an apology from the United Nations official a day after he told reporters in Geneva that Taiwan has been abetting a campaign of racist slurs and death threats against him for the past three months.

[…] “Taiwan, the Foreign Ministry also, they know the campaign. They didn’t disassociate themselves. They even started criticizing me in the middle of all that insult and slur, but I didn’t care,” Tedros said Wednesday in an uncharacteristic outburst.

The Taiwanese Foreign Ministry said Thursday it “in no way encouraged” any personal attacks and condemned “any form of discrimination.”

But it also said the WHO has faced legitimate criticism and anger over its conduct in the past three months. [Source]

State-affiliated tabloid Global Times has accused “Taiwan separatists” of politicizing the pandemic to “poison cross-strait ties.” At New Bloom, Brian Hioe recalls Tedros’ earlier criticism of Taipei, and notes that the situation has become a soft power win for Taiwan and the case for its formal inclusion in the global order:

According to Tedros, Taiwan was politicizing the coronavirus pandemic to attack the WHO when the world needs to unite in combating the disease. What has raised eyebrows in particular, however, was Tedros accusing the Taiwanese government of “racism” against Africans in this purported campaign against him.

[…] Tedros also lashed out at Taiwan last month, accusing Taiwan of being behind online criticism of his leadership of the WHO through use of a “cyber-army.”This was specifically in the context of an online petition on Change.org that called for his replacement as director-general of the WHO. At press time, the petition currently has around 754,000 signatures. Nevertheless, given international praise of Taiwan, at other points the WHO has claimed that it has worked with Taiwan in efforts to fight COVID-19. Such claims have been denied by the Taiwanese government.

To this extent, the Taiwanese government has sought to use the COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to highlight Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations such as the WHO. That is, the Taiwanese government has sought to highlight Taiwan’s potential contributions to international health, sending millions of medical masks internationally as a form of diplomatic soft power, in addition to other supplies.

[…] Tedros’ accusation that it is the Taiwanese government that is attempting to unduly politicize the issue of global health would seem to be a form of victim-blaming. This accusation would be a means of attempting to redirect accusations that have been made against China toward Taiwan, in the hopes that this will stick. [Source]

At The Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby puts the “medical outrage” of excluding Taiwan from the WHO into the context of a wider “political outrage”: that most of the globalized world has decided to follow Beijing’s “One China” line. Jacoby notes that the pandemic has fueled long-running concerns about China’s emerging influence over the international order:

The claim that Taiwan is part of China is ridiculous on its face. Yet so aggressive is Beijing in asserting that Taiwan not be treated as a legitimate nation that most of the world’s governments choose not to press the issue. International bodies go along with the “one China” fiction, treating Taiwan and its people with profound disrespect. It’s a shameful situation in the best of times. Amid a global pandemic, it’s reckless.

[…] The WHO has come in for serious criticism of how it has handled the coronavirus threat, in particular for being so deferential to the Chinese government. As Beijing was suppressing information about the outbreak in Wuhan and punishing doctors who tried to raise an alarm, the WHO was ostentatiously praising China for its “openness to sharing information” and downplaying the danger from the virus. By reacting so obsequiously, writes Michael Collins of the Council on Foreign Relations, the organization in effect “laundered China’s image at the expense of the WHO’s credibility.”

[…] This crisis has awakened second thoughts about the world’s relations with China. Its treatment of Taiwan is one thing that cannot continue. There is no excuse for denying one of Asia’s freest and most advanced nations a seat at the table in every global forum.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced Taiwan’s importance as a responsible partner in protecting global health, even as it has intensified skepticism of China’s competence and integrity. […][Source]

In a Council on Foreign Relations brief, Taiwanese lawyer Yu-Jie Chen and NYU law professor Jerome Cohen explain why Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is of special concern during a pandemic:

Taiwan is an important stakeholder and a valuable partner in fighting this unprecedented crisis. Taiwan’s government is donating masks to countries in need and sharing its experience using technology to investigate outbreaks. It is also working with U.S. experts to develop more rapid diagnostic test kits and vaccines.

Despite Taiwan’s valuable input, the WHO continues to shun it. For example, when asked by a journalist about Taiwan’s exclusion and experience dealing with the pandemic during a recent interview, WHO senior advisor Bruce Aylward hung up the call after trying to avoid the questions. After this public relations disaster, the WHO claimed it was closely working with Taiwan experts, which Taiwan’s government refuted. Taiwan has continually shared coronavirus data with the WHO, but the WHO has never released this information to its members. Additionally, in a February coronavirus status report, the WHO misreported the number of cases in Taiwan based on information provided by China. It also continues to deceptively list Taiwan’s case numbers under China’s. Taiwan was snubbed by the WHO yet again when it was not invited to the organization’s emergency meetings in January. After repeated requests, in February, the WHO finally allowed two Taiwanese experts to attend an online forum. Such ludicrous limitations have rightly been scoffed at by many governments and critics.

The WHO’s exclusion of Taiwan from the global fight against the pandemic is a reckless dereliction of duty. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whose election was due in large part to China’s support, has been widely criticized for actions that appeared to help China downplay the outbreak, delaying the international response as a result. Taiwan’s exclusion is an example of how the world’s health body puts politics before public health. Governments and concerned citizens must demand that the WHO fulfill its obligation—to represent the world’s health interests, not China’s—and hold the WHO accountable when it fails.

At NBC News, Cindy Sui relays analysts’ opinions that Taiwan’s stark success against the virus despite its lack of WHO inclusion and support significantly bolsters Taipei’s case for WHO membership:

Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said he believes that Taiwan has done an “exceptional job” responding to the crisis and that if it had been a member of the WHO, “we would have learned at least two weeks earlier of the threat we were facing.”

“In addition, we would have learned at least six weeks earlier that the outbreak could be successfully suppressed and how to do so,” he said in an email. “The experience of the last three months shows that exclusion of Taiwan from the WHO decreases the effectiveness of the WHO and increases risks to the world.” [Source]

At AP, Matthew Lee reports that the Trump administration is seizing the opportunity to promote Taiwan’s status on the global stage:

The administration is pressing for Taiwan’s inclusion as a separate entity in international organizations like the World Health Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization, both of which have significant roles in anti-virus efforts. But, it is more broadly pushing back against Beijing’s recent diplomatic victories over Taipei that have included several small countries abandoning diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China.

[…] At the March 31 conference, the participants “discussed ongoing efforts to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status at the World Health Assembly, as well as other avenues for closer coordination between Taiwan and the World Health Organization,” the State Department said.

“Countries around the world can benefit from better understanding the ‘Taiwan Model’, as well as the generous contributions and impressive expertise Taiwan — a vibrant democracy and force for good — brings to the global community,” it said.

The “Taiwan Model” refers to the early strict steps the island took to stem the spread of the virus, which as of late last week had reported only 329 confirmed cases and five deaths despite its close proximity to mainland China. In addition, Taiwan has announced plans to donate 7 million protective masks to European countries and another 2 million to the United States. […] [Source]

On March 19, Taiwan closed its border to international visitors, fearing a second wave of COVID-19 after a “sharp increase” (of ten new cases). At Foreign Policy, Nick Aspinwall reports that, despite geopolitical obstacles and ongoing domestic relief efforts, Taiwan is doing its part to export its success story:

But it is not too late for Taiwan to help. Last month, President Tsai Ing-wen said on Twitter that Taiwan is “willing to contribute our capabilities to better protect human health around the world.” On April 1, Taiwan announced it would donate 10 million masks to the United States, 11 European countries, and its diplomatic allies. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that a second batch of six million masks would be donated to countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas.

“Taiwan can, using our resources, help these countries,” said Wang Ting-yu, a legislator with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party.

[…] Wang, who sits on the legislature’s foreign affairs committee, is one of Taiwan’s most vocal adopters of the Twitter hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp. Originally a rallying cry to allow Taiwan to participate in international organizations (including WHO) that stubbornly exclude it at the behest of Beijing, the phrase is now often attached to stories of Taiwan’s success in combating the coronavirus. And while Taiwan is committed to protecting its own population first—experts fear cases could spike again due to the large number of residents returning to Taiwan in the past month—it is striving to provide assistance.

[…] Taiwan can also assist other nations with logistics and operations, allocation of production and resources, and the use of data for tracking potentially infected individuals and contact tracing to prevent further spread, said the Stanford Health Policy researcher C. Jason Wang, who co-wrote a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article contains a list of 124 actions Taiwan took to combat the outbreak that other countries can pull from, including screening at airports and enforcement of mandatory 14-day quarantines. [Source]

For more examples of Taiwanese digital innovation proving to guard its highly embattled democracy, see Carl Miller’s look at the thriving and impactful “civic hacker” movement on the island at WIRED.


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