Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the coronavirus pandemic endangered its citizens and undermined global information sharing, a US congressional report said, as pressure mounts for the island to be granted observer status at the health agency’s upcoming forum.
The brief, published on Tuesday by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which reports to the US Congress on national security issues between Beijing and Washington, said that Beijing’s influence and pressure on the WHO had sidelined Taiwan, causing “critical delays” to health guidance on the coronavirus outbreak for the organisation’s member states.
“Had the WHO allowed Taiwan’s health experts to share information and best practices in early January, governments around the world could have had more complete information on which to base their public health policies,” the report’s author, Anastasya Lloyd-Damnjanovic, wrote.
“The WHO’s suppression of information provided by Taiwan and the delayed issuance of its own guidance undermined the national security of the very member states trusting it for authoritative public health guidance.”
The WHO has in the past rejected accusations of favouring Beijing, saying its experts recognised the “very successful response” of Taiwanese health authorities to the pandemic and had worked with them on a technical level.
There have been growing calls in recent weeks – including from the United States, European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan – for Taiwan, a self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own, to attend the WHO’s World Health Assembly, which gets under way online on Monday.
Taiwan took part in the meetings between 2009 and 2016 under the name “Chinese Taipei” but has been denied attendance as an observer since then following pressure from Beijing after the election of independence-leaning Tsai Ing-wen as the island’s president in 2016.
The USCC report said Beijing had undermined Taiwan’s ability to share its public health strategy to contain the coronavirus outbreak, including its experience taking “early and aggressive” measures to identify suspected cases, trace contacts and enforce quarantines.
It outlined how the WHO had ignored an email from Taiwanese authorities in late December requesting more information about the initial cases of Covid-19 reported in the central China city of Wuhan, and their subsequent efforts to share information with the agency.
“As Taiwan acted to contain Covid-19 at home and develop globally applicable medical treatments for the virus, the WHO stonewalled its efforts to share information and participate in public health discussions with WHO member states,” the report said.
“Though the WHO permitted Taiwan experts to participate by video chat in a WHO forum to discuss responses to Covid-19 [in February], they could not interact directly with WHO member states’ representatives or share information about Taiwan’s public health response.”
Beijing also continued its pressure campaign against Taiwan during the pandemic, including flying military aircraft over the median line of the Taiwan Strait and conducting a joint air and maritime drill in February that involved flights around the island, the report said.
Taiwan has been a politically prickly issue for the WHO during the outbreak, particularly after the backlash to the UN agency’s glowing praise of Beijing’s pandemic response. Last month, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused Taiwan of orchestrating personal and racist attacks against him, claims the island’s foreign ministry decried as “baseless”.
Steven Solomon, the WHO’s principal legal officer, said on Monday that Tedros could only extend an invitation to Taiwan to attend the assembly when it was clear its 194 member states supported such a move, as had been the case when the island was invited in the past.
“Today however, the situation is not the same,” he said. “Instead of clear support, there are divergent moves among member states and no basis, therefore no mandate, for the director general to extend an invitation.
“This is a political issue that is properly in the hands of member states.”
Solomon said that 13 member states had made a proposal for Taiwan’s attendance, which all members could consider.