While the World Health Organization (WHO) meets in Geneva for its World Health Assembly (WHA) this month and claims to focus on public health at a global level, it continues to deny the right of over 23 million people living in Taiwan to speak about, participate in, or benefit from international public health discourse.
The WHO was established with the following mandate, as stated on its homepage:
We champion health and a better future for all. Dedicated to the well-being of all people and guided by science, the World Health Organization leads and champions global efforts to give everyone, everywhere an equal chance to live a healthy life.
It regularly holds a World Health Assembly (WHA) — this year from May 21 to 30 in Geneva. As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, a deadly pandemic that knows no borders given how easily it is transmitted, the WHA shared the following theme for this year's gathering:
The theme of this year’s Health Assembly is: WHO at 75: Saving lives, driving health for all.
Yet what the WHO fails to mention is that it openly disregards millions of people who have indeed been affected by COVID-19 and have seen several thousand neighbors and elderly relatives die, simply because those 23 million happen to live on the island of Taiwan.
The Republic of China (ROC), which administers the territory of Taiwan, was a full member of the UN until 1971 when the UN decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Since then, Taiwan has been ostracized to the point that Taiwan passport holders have been refused entry to UN headquarters. All UN agencies, including WHO, thus abide by the same decision.
Yet Taiwan is not only a country with its own government, currency, and army; it is also a democratic society of 23 million people who can be affected by the same viruses as any other society on the planet in a closely interconnected world of trade, travel, and communication.
Despite this, the country continues to be ignored and even denied observer status at the WHO.The UN grants observer status no organizations and non-member states to allow them to participate in UN discussions but with certain limitations. Currently two states enjoy this status: the Holy see and the state of Palestine.
This year, as in past years, Taiwan was not invited and not allowed to participate in the WHA. As the Taiwanese Health and Welfare Minister Hsueh Jui-yuan (薛瑞元) explains in this Taipei Times article:
Taiwan is an indispensable part of the global public health system and many countries know it, but Taiwan is being neglected by the WHO, which is unfair treatment.
Despite the ban, a Taiwanese delegation led by the Minister is present in Geneva to lobby for support from the international community, as this tweet explains:
Collaborating w/@genevapressclub, @MOHW_Taiwan Minister Hsueh, expressed Taiwan's deep dissatisfaction with @WHO‘s exclusion of Taiwan from #WHA76. Taiwan can assist pandemic prevention and promote global health. Taiwan will continue its efforts to participate in the @WHO and WHA pic.twitter.com/D6HQhRRfFP
— Taiwan in Geneva (@Taipei_GVA) May 21, 2023
COVID diplomacy remembered and expanded
A number of countries supporting Taiwan for observer status have previously engaged in bilateral COVID diplomacy: the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Japan, the US, Canada and Germany among others.
While Taiwan was among the first to report COVID-19 cases to the WHO as early as December 2019, the WHO ignored its warnings and dismissed its report. When the pandemic hit highly unprepared countries in Europe in 2020, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Taiwan offered and sent ventilators, masks, and mask production equipment.
In July 2021, the Czech Republic gave away vaccines to countries missing them, and that included 30,000 doses for Taiwan. Other countries such as Slovakia, Lithuania, Japan, and the US also joined, given that the island did not have its own vaccine.
Taiwan continues to demonstrate its determination to participate in global public health efforts by providing medical support to many countries. It has launched a global campaign around the hashtag #TaiwanCanHelp to increase awareness about Taiwan's unique position in the global health industry.
Its Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a video in early May that can be seen on YouTube here
It states that “it has trained more than 2,000 healthcare professionals from 77 countries in the past 20 years.” and mentions support to Ukraine and Africa since the 1950s as part of its ongoing mission to expand global health.