The annual World Health Assembly (WHA) convened from May 21 until the 26.  The World Health Organization’s own website describes the purpose of the WHA:

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of WHO. It is attended by delegations from all WHO Member States and focuses on a specific health agenda prepared by the Executive Board. The main functions of the World Health Assembly are to determine the policies of the Organization, appoint the Director-General, supervise financial policies, and review and approve the proposed programme budget. The Health Assembly is held annually in Geneva, Switzerland.

While this organization is ostensibly about health first and foremost, it seems that politics have reared their ugly head.  Taiwan has once again been barred from the conference.  This is nothing new, however Taiwan did at least have observer status from 2009 to 2016.  However this was done under the name “Chinese Taipei,” which many in Taiwan see as a derogatory term.  This is clear when you look at how people in Taiwan identify themselves, especially young people.  Only 3 percent of people in Taiwan self-describe as solely Chinese, while over 60 percent describe themselves as Taiwanese. People under 40 are even more likely to describe themselves as exclusively “Taiwanese,” at around 70 percent, and those below 29 years of age are closer to 80.  This trend has been on the rise over the past few years and shows no signs of letting up.

It seems that this brief period of admittance as an observer state was due to then president Ma Ying-jeou’s cozy relationship with China.  Once Tsai Ing-wen gained the presidency in 2016 China started to push its weight around to strip Taiwan of any international clout it may have acquired.  This is perhaps solely due to Tsai’s unwillingness to go along with China’s ridiculous idea that China and Taiwan are one nation and that the two will be reunited one day.  This has been obvious in China’s recent actions aimed at pushing former allies away from Taiwan, including Burkina Faso and the Dominican Republic.  These small states may not seem like powerhouses to have as allies, but Taiwan needs all the help it can get as China uses “dollar diplomacy” to get other counties to ignore the island nation.

Taiwan’s WHA, and for that matter UN, status are directly linked to China’s influence.  Spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office An Fengshan (安峰山) rebutted these claims, saying that the UN must abide by the “1992 Consensus,” which states that there is only one China, which includes Taiwan, though the “ROC” government has special jurisdiction over Taiwan and the surrounding islands of Kinmen, Matsu, and Penghu.  He stated that ” The political foundation for Taiwan’s participation in the WHA does not exist.  The responsibility lies with the DPP authorities.”  Chinese operators of the state-owned China Daily have also stated that this push for acceptance into the WHA are simply efforts to, “hijack public health in Taiwan to serve her political goal of winning de facto statehood recognition for the island.” However, such attempts to shift blame off of the Chinese Government does not cleanse them of the harm and potential danger that they create when they bar Taiwan from joining the WHA.

Barring Taiwan from the WHA, and other international organizations, could have a huge negative effect on the nation, as well as the international community at large.  Lo Chih-cheng, a Taiwanese DPP legislator from Miaoli, stated that this act is a “health apartheid,” he also believes that, “disease knows no borders and what happens in other countries clearly impacts on Taiwan and the other way round. It’s a lose-lose situation.”  He is of course correct in his assessment, and also correct in his later assertion that this obstruction was “purely political”.  President Tsai also weighed in saying that “Taiwan provides medical assistance to millions of patients around the world.”  She added to impact of this statement by liking to a video that shows numerous Taiwanese medical staff helping sick and injured people around the world, stating, “WHO cares, Taiwan cares.”

The secretary general of the Taiwan Medical Association, Dr. Wang Pi-sheng, argued that this is not a political argument, though in my opinion it should be, by adding, “we want to share our resources and information.”  Taiwan has an exceptional and arguably leading healthcare system when compared with those around the world.  It seems only right that they should be involved in the conversation and allowed the same rights as other nations.  Dr. Wang continued by saying, “it’s about the epidemic protection network. We don’t want any gap from this network because now we have some new viral epidemic diseases.”  People in Taiwan, and medical professionals especially, have a history on their sides when making such arguments.

In 2003, Taiwan was in the midst of the SARs crisis, which ended up killing 37 people in Taiwan.  Due to its status with the WHO the independent island nation was left to fend for itself.  “We asked for help from the WHO and they denied us because we were not a member, or even an observer,” said Dr. Wang Pi-sheng.  WHO even refused to meet with officials from Taiwan over claims that it refused to respond to those in need, the organization refused to respond over its lack of response to a global health outbreak, which seems to be the purpose of the group.  This small nation itself is thankfully not the only one defending its case now.

Recently, many have come out in support of Taiwan gaining at least observer status in the WHA.  These include 16 of Taiwan’s diplomatic partners, who recently wrote a joint letter urging the WHO to allow Taiwan to join the gathering.  Alex Azar, the US Health and Human Services secretary, has also come out in favor of Taiwan being allowed to attend the WHA.  In addition to this the United States showed further support when 172 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, that urged Taiwan’s admittance into the WHA.

The EU’s Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations’ spokesperson, Maja Kocijanci, asserted, “the European Union, generally speaking, supports practical solutions regarding Taiwan’s participation in international frameworks.”  She also contradicted the Communist Chinese narrative when she said, “this is in line with our one-China policy and in line with our general policy objectives.”

It seems clear that the admittance of Taiwan should be expedited.  However, it seems that China will continue to stonewall.  The only option is for the island nation to continue pushing for acceptance and for those around the globe to do the same.  Nations need to push a hard-line and not allow push-back for Beijing.  Individuals on the ground also need to contact their local representatives in order to not only get the word out, but push their government in the correct and moral direction of allowing Taiwan to join the WHA.

Photo credit: Marcelo Leal@marceloleal80

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