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BRITAIN’S shambolic response to the Covid-19 crisis has become an international scandal as well as a domestic disgrace. The situation in the US, despite Trump’s bluster, is no better.
The recently concluded World Health Assembly (WHA) of the World Health Organisation (WHO) should have concentrated on global co-operation to research and fight the coronavirus.
Instead it became a shadow war over the international status of the island of Taiwan whose official name is the Republic of China (ROC), and attempts to cast the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the worst possible light.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on the eve of the WHA that “no-one disputes that Taiwan has mounted one of the world’s most successful efforts to contain the pandemic to date... This should not be a surprise. Transparent, vibrant, and innovative democracies like Taiwan always respond faster and more effectively to pandemics than do authoritarian regimes.”
The stark contrast between the responses to Covid-19 of the US (93,000 deaths) and Taiwan (seven deaths) appear to have escaped Pompeo’s grasp. Nonetheless, he went on:
“The WHO’s director-general Tedros had every legal power and precedent to include Taiwan in WHA’s proceedings. Yet, he instead chose not to invite Taiwan under pressure from the People’s Republic of China… The director-general’s lack of independence deprives the assembly of Taiwan’s renowned scientific expertise on pandemic disease, and further damages the WHO’s credibility and effectiveness at a time when the world needs it the most.
“The PRC’s spiteful action to silence Taiwan exposes the emptiness of its claims to want transparency and international co-operation to fight the pandemic and makes the difference between China and Taiwan ever more stark,” Pompeo said.
Diversion and scapegoating have been employed by both Downing Street and the White House. One common theme, also promoted by other Anglophone countries such as Australia and New Zealand, has been clear: “Blame China, Praise Taiwan.”
The Guardian reported on May 16 that “senior ministers in New Zealand said last week Taiwan should be allowed to join the WHO as an observer given its success in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus, drawing China’s ire which asked the Pacific country to “stop making wrong statements.”
The paper then quoted Winston Peters, New Zealand’s right-wing foreign minister, who said: “We have got to stand up for ourselves… And true friendship is based on equality. It’s based on the ability in this friendship to nevertheless disagree… New Zealand’s position on Taiwan is about its tremendous success against Covid-19.”
Although this project appears to lack broader support for now, the politicisation of the Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity for supporters of Taiwanese separatism that they have lacked for decades.
While Taiwan’s response to Covid-19 has been laudable, the singling out of the island’s response is transparently political rather than medical. Taiwan has reported just 441 cases with seven deaths. Compare this with most European countries, especially Britain, and you can see that Taiwan’s record is remarkable.
However, if we compare the island of Taiwan’s figures with those territories that share land borders with mainland China, and which receive many times the number of mainland Chinese visitors to the island, then Taiwan’s data seems a little less miraculous.
Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) figures, for example, show that despite much larger traffic with the mainland, by air, sea and land, compared to Taiwan, Hong Kong has registered just over 1,000 Covid cases with only four fatalities.
Hong Kong’s neighbour the Macao SAR, a gambling enclave heavily dependent on mass Chinese tourism, has had just 45 cases and not a single death. In fact, the majority of cases (35) came from the second wave of returnees from Europe and Asia.
The single most impressive Asian response to Covid-19 was in socialist Vietnam, where decisive early measures limited the number of those affected to just 324. So far not a single death has been attributed to Covid, according to Vietnamese government data, international monitors and also foreign medical specialists.
This in a country whose population is more than four times that of Taiwan.
A further factor, occasionally mentioned in the Western media, is that Asian countries have had to deal with similar epidemics before. Soon after I moved to Hong Kong, the territory was hit by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which claimed almost 300 lives compared to just four from Covid.
The wearing of masks in flu season has long been commonplace in East Asian countries and territories, particularly Japan and South Korea. It became normal during SARS.
So we can see that Taiwan’s response certainly shames a developed island nation such as Britain, but it does not seem especially impressive compared to other east and south-east Asian territories. Even if it were, why didn’t Britain and US adopt its methods?
Behind the rhetoric there are a number of historical and political issues that the mainstream media has chosen to ignore. Here are two essential facts:
1. In 1971, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758, recognised the PRC as the sole lawful representative of China. As a result, the World Health Organisation, which is one of many specialised UN agencies, brought in the PRC as a full member.
2. China (PRC) supported the admission of Taiwan’s health authorities as “observers” into the WHO structures between 2009 and 2016, when Taiwan was governed by the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Guomindang, which at least formally supports a One China policy. Since then, due to the domination of the Taipei government by the separatist Democratic People’s Party (DPP), observer status has been rescinded. Any involvement of the Taiwan authorities, which are obliged to name themselves Chinese Taipei for most UN related activities, in the WHO is always subject to China’s approval.
Taiwan’s elevation as a poster child of the anti-Covid fight is based on political opportunism, not medical necessity. The move in the current climate to reinstate Taiwan’s observer status within WHO structures is also politically motivated.
This was clearly part of the DPP strategy as outlined by a report in the Taipei Times on May 4, with the paper quoting DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng as saying: “Taiwan will have a better chance of being invited to the WHA if the US increases its manoeuvring in the WHO Secretariat.”
There is an urgent need for global co-operation to combat Covid-19. This should be scientifically and not ideologically driven. We should not let the Trump administration cynically misuse the Taiwan issue to disrupt this urgent and essential task.
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