As the World Health Organization met virtually for a truncated version of its annual assembly on Monday, Xi Jinping announced a shift in Chinese policy by agreeing to an investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus, which has become a global pandemic and killed more than 300,000 globally since it was first discovered in Wuhan in December. In recent months, China and the U.S. have engaged in an increasingly bitter war of words and disinformation over the virus’s origins and which country bears ultimate responsibility for its spread. The Trump administration has further blamed the WHO for playing into China’s hands while reporting on the initial outbreak, thereby preventing governments around the world from acting in a more urgent manner to prevent its spread. President Trump threatened to withdraw all U.S. funding for the WHO as a result, though more recently has appeared to backtrack on that threat. AP reports on the proposed WHO inquiry and on Xi’s speech to the assembly, in which he also committed to contributing $2 billion globally to help contain the virus:
The EU resolution proposes that the independent evaluation should be initiated “at the earliest appropriate moment” and should, among other issues, examine “the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic.”
WHO announced the coronavirus outbreak to be a global health emergency on Jan. 30, its highest level of alert. In the following weeks, WHO warned countries there was a narrowing “window of opportunity” to prevent the virus from spreading globally.
WHO officials, however, repeatedly described the transmission of the virus as “limited” and said it wasn’t as transmissible as flu; experts have since said Covid-19 spreads even faster. It declared the outbreak to be a pandemic on March 11, after the virus had killed thousands globally and sparked large epidemics in South Korea, Italy, Iran and elsewhere.
Xi said he also supported the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19. [Source]
Governments around the world, including the U.S., have also criticized the WHO for shutting out Taiwan, which had warned of the possibility of human-to-human transmission of coronavirus before China or the WHO had publicly acknowledged it, and also has been one of the most successful countries in the world at controlling the epidemic. While Taiwan is not a member of WHO due to China’s insistence that the island belongs to China and must not participate in multilateral organizations independently, it had observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, until 2016. Taiwan’s diminished diplomatic stature may have impacted the global response to the pandemic by not taking the island’s experience into account in international efforts to fight the virus. Taiwan has lobbied the WHO to allow its participation in this year’s assembly. Reuters reports:
Non-WHO member Taiwan had been lobbying to take part in a meeting later on Monday of WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, saying that to lock it out was to create a gap in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
Taiwan has said it wanted to share with the world its successful experience at fighting the coronavirus, having only reported 440 cases and seven deaths thanks to early detection and prevention work.
But China, which considers democratically ruled Taiwan its own with no right to attend international bodies as a sovereign state, strongly objected to Taiwan taking part in the assembly unless it accepted it was part of China. This, the Taipei government refused to do.
“Despite all our efforts and an unprecedented level of international support, Taiwan has not received an invitation to take part,” Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told reporters. [Source]
The United States and several other countries led efforts to pressure the WHO into inviting Taiwan to this week’s assembly. The Chinese government initially said Taiwan could only participate if Taiwan accepted the principle of “One China” which says that Taiwan belongs to China. The Taiwanese Health Minister rejected this suggestion, saying: “I have no way to accept something which does not exist.” Nick Aspinwall and Emily Rauhala report for the Washington Post:
Taiwan has won praise for its effective response and donations of medical equipment, including millions of face masks — the fruits of a campaign to combine health diplomacy and relief with an effort to bolster Taiwan’s international image.
[…] One symbol of recognition remains elusive: an invitation for Taiwan to observe next week’s World Health Assembly. Despite a growing pro-Taiwan coalition backing their inclusion, health officials in this self-ruled democracy remain sidelined from the World Health Organization’s decision-making body at the urging of China’s government, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan and has sought to sever its international contacts.
With Washington and Beijing vying for influence within global organizations, the United States, joined by European allies and other democracies, has led calls for WHO DirectorGeneral Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan. That has happened alongside some of the closest official U.S. contacts with Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing in 1979.
[…] The WHO has said any decision on Taiwan’s participation must come through a resolution passed by the assembly. Taiwan and the United States have insisted that Tedros has the power to unilaterally invite Taiwan, but he has declined to affirm this. [Source]
Several former European heads of state and government officials wrote a letter in The Guardian supporting Taiwan’s bid to join the WHA last week. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Carl Bildt and Bertel Haarder wrote:
While countries have pursued their own measures in the face of Covid-19, we have also learned important lessons from each other.
In particular, Taiwan’s response to this pandemic is widely considered to have been pioneering, drawing on important lessons from the Sars outbreak in 2003. It is regretful that geopolitics has prevented Taiwan from fully accessing the forums and services of the World Health Organization – not least as the WHO could have benefited from its expertise.
In the interests of global health coverage, we urge all WHO members to support Taiwan’s access to the World Health Assembly as an observer, as was the case between 2009 and 2016. This will have no wider implications than to ensure that 23 million people with something to offer are not excluded from exchanging best practices. [Source]
In response to such calls for support of Taiwan, the Chinese government asked other governments to co-sign a letter asking WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus not to raise the issue of Taiwan’s status at this week’s meeting, according to a report in Foreign Policy.
Taiwan later announced it would wait to petition for full membership in the WHO and to participate in the WHA until after the current assembly when member states will have more time to focus on non-urgent COVID matters. From DW.com:
Taiwan’s decision to abstain from actively vying for its inclusion is due to the limited time that WHA participants will have to deliberate the response to the pandemic. The shortened agenda requires that the available time be exclusively devoted to concentrating on ways to manage COVID-19, Wu told reporters.
The event, which is usually held in Geneva over a three-week-long period, has been shortened to just two days and is being held virtually.
Taipei plans to continue pushing for World Health Organization (WHO) membership, and subsequent assembly inclusion, once the outbreak is better contained, and when “meetings will be conducted normally, to make sure there will be full and open discussion,” said Wu.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the WHO of playing politics “while lives are at stake” and succumbing to Chinese pressure by not including Taiwan. Pompeo called out WHO chief Ghebreysus over a “lack of independence” and said his decision hurt the WHO’s “credibility and effectiveness.” [Source]