by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tom Page/Flickr/CC

IT MAY BE of little surprise that Taiwan was blocked from participating in the annual summit of the World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization (WHO), for a third straight year. The summit was held last month in May.

Taiwan was allowed to participate as an observer between 2009 and 2016 under the Ma administration. However, Taiwan has been blocked from participating since the Tsai administration took power, as a result of Chinese pressure within the organization.

Taiwanese Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung. Photo credit: VOA

Previously, Margaret Chan, the director of the WHO from 2006 to 2017, was thought to by some in Taiwan to be acting on behalf of China within the WHO. Despite being born in Hong Kong and later in life a naturalized Canadian national, as director of the WHO, Chan served as the delegate for China. However, despite that current director-general of the WHO since 2017 has been Ethiopian politician Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Taiwan continues to be blocked from the WHO and WHA. This would be in line with how Chinese pressure has led Taiwan to be blocked from a number of international organizations, including the International Civil Aviation Association, the International Labor Conference, and others.

As with past years in which Taiwan has been excluded from the WHA summit, Taiwanese health officials such as Chen Shih-chung flew to Geneva in order to conduct meetings on the sidelines of the WHA. Before flying to Geneva, Chen published an article in The Diplomat citing Taiwan’s health achievements, such as ranking ninth in Bloomberg Finance’s 2018 Health Care Efficiency Index, fourteenth in The Economist’s 2017 Global Access to Healthcare Index, and touting Taiwan’s universal healthcare system. Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu was also critical of China’s actions in an interview with The Telegraph, citing that excluding Taiwan from the WHO contributes to the danger of regional pandemics, and the past precedent of how a slow response by the WHO which led to deaths in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic in 2003.

Expressions of support for Taiwan’s participation in the WHO as an observer came from the US, UK, Canada, Australia. Diplomatic allies of Taiwan gave speeches at the WHA summit criticizing Taiwan’s exclusion, perhaps most notably in a speech by St. Vincent and the Grenadines Minister of Health Luke Browne which became popularly circulated online in Taiwan. One also notes that American political and military support for Taiwan has strengthened in the past year. Yet Taiwan remained excluded as before from the WHO.

Either way, concerns are on the rise regarding health risks faced in Taiwan because of Chinese actions in the past year, particularly as caused by Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations. Government officials urged public action regarding African swine fever was last year because of the possibility that it would decimate Taiwan’s pork industry. This was a strong possibility, particularly in consideration of how Taiwan’s pork industry was devastated by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 1997.

Photo credit: Public Domain

To this extent, a particular danger proved to be Chinese travelers attempting to bring pork in Taiwan, whether these were accidental or deliberate attempts to smuggle pork into Taiwan. China is the largest consumer of pork in the world, with half the world’s pigs raised in China. However, the outbreak of African swine fever in Taiwan is now large enough that 200 million pigs may need to be culled this year. The disease has also spread to neighboring countries such as Laos, Mongolia, and Vietnam, which has culled 1.7 million pigs. Although China notified the World Organization for Animal Health about the outbreak, it did not notify Taiwan, despite that this is a legal provision of the Cross-Strait Arrangement on Cooperation of Agricultural Product Quarantine and Inspection (海峽兩岸農產品檢疫檢驗合作協議). Though this led to criticisms from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, China has shrugged off these criticisms.

Broadly speaking, Taiwan’s exclusion from international health bodies as a result of Chinese pressure continues to prove a danger to the health of Taiwanese. Yet with Taiwan’s continued exclusion from the WHA and WHO this year, it seems that this will not change anytime soon.

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