Aglobal response against Covid- 19 pandemic has become increasingly important and necessary. Amid the calls for the world to stand together, Taiwan has been kept out of the global chain of information sharing. The island nation over the years has lost diplomatic ties with many countries around the world due to the heavy hand of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through its one-China policy.
Consequently, the PRC has also influenced Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organization (WHO), which is the main reason for its isolation during this pandemic. Among other things, Taiwan does not have direct access to information related to the virus and other medical guidelines from the WHO, and its own inputs to the organization are also not taken into account.
The WHO’s non-recognition of Taiwan is not only endangering Taiwan’s need for possible assistance in times of emergencies but also prevents any assistance Taiwan may be able to provide to the rest of the world. WHO’s position on Taiwan became viral when a reporter from Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) asked the organization’s Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward on April 2 if WHO would reconsider Taiwan’s membership in the organization and how Taipei has done in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The WHO official was at first hesitant and evasive but when pressed he reluctantly said, “we’ve already talked about China.” This attitude has also played out in cases where official Covid-19 statistics from Taiwan have been mixed along with the data of the PRC. Taiwan was also excluded from WHO Emergency Committee meetings in January which means that Taiwan did not have direct access to information regarding the pandemic, thereby forcing Taipei to work with what it had on its hand.
Under such circumstances, it is important to see how Taiwan reacted to the pandemic. Since the time there were some cases surfacing in Wuhan, Taiwan was on alert the whole time and sent a special investigation team to look into the matter. Taiwan reported to WHO about its findings but officials repeatedly sidelined those warnings. But Taiwan had taken steps to tackle the situation very early on.
It implemented strict border control measures and stopped exporting masks and increased its mask production for domestic use only. They also put a strict monitoring system in place which ensured that quarantine protocols were followed by citizens along with the use of advanced technology which enabled them to effectively track suspected cases in the state. Taiwan’s early action and preparedness was also a result of the troubles it faced during the SARS outbreak in 2002.
After that experience, Taiwan set up the National Health Command Center (NHCC) of which the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) has been proactively working as a response mechanism furnishing with pandemic related information to the public. Previous assumptions were that Taiwan would be amongst the worst hit states, given its close proximity to the PRC. But interestingly, it appears that Taiwan has relatively controlled the spread of the virus and now wants to share its methods and aid to the rest of the world.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced on April 1 the “Taiwan can help” campaign saying that “We want everyone to not only see that ‘Taiwan can help,’ but that ‘Taiwan is helping.” The campaign focusses on three points; donating 10 million face masks to countries that are severely affected by the virus, increasing production of quinine, and sharing the use of technology to trace and investigate virus outbreaks.
With Taiwan having the ability to produce up to 13 million face masks per day, it is donating seven million masks to Europe, including Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom, and an additional 2 million masks to the United States, and others to smaller countries which have diplomatic ties with the island nation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ twitter page has been updating about the protective mask shipments with the assurance that “Taiwan is coming” to help.
Even though international organizations like WHO may not acknowledge the role Taiwan can play in fighting the pandemic, Taipei is extending a helping hand wherever possible. Though it is understandable that there are protocols under the one- China policy which prevent WHO and other international organizations to fully engage Taiwan as a sovereign country, they should not completely sideline what the island state can contribute to humanity in this time of crisis.
Instead, the international community at large and especially the WHO should find ways to engage Taiwan in order to effectively utilize its resources and expertise in the fight against the pandemic, leaving aside political and diplomatic issues. It is important to consider Taiwan’s propositions because of the way it has handled the situation quite well domestically and that too at a much earlier stage, making it one of the best examples globally.
In the fight against the pandemic, the need of the hour is that every country or state or province capable of helping must be able to help and not be constrained by political limitations. The lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are at risk and countries are running out of resources. In this dire situation, Taiwan’s inputs might have the potential to usher some positive outcomes.
A collective and concerted action requires every hand on deck and every actor capable of helping must get the chance to play their role instead of being pressurized into the corner and left alone. And the international community should welcome Taiwan’s helping hand and battle the virus together.
(The writers are respectively, Assistant Dean and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University and a research assistant at CSEAS)