COVID19: Time to reckon Taiwan’s WHO membership

Prerna Chahar
May 03, 2020


The novel corona virus outbreak, a transnational threat, has spawned a wave of fear and alarm among the nations. Currently, every country has its back against the wall to keep this pandemic at bay. Nonetheless, one country that has stood out in these dire times of much-needed protection and safety is the Republic of China (ROC) or Taiwan.

Much before the pandemic went beyond the shores of China, Taiwan alerted WHO of the timely and necessary actions required in containing it. However, WHO’s perceived capitulation to Chinese government pressure apparently led it to ignore its early warning, and the global body refused to take any action. Taiwan has tried to drive a hard bargain to get independent statehood and recognition in international organizations, but because of Chinese government pressure and arm-twisting policies, it has failed to get the same. 

Within this complex web of politics, the question that needs to be pondered upon is how has Taiwan, unlike many other countries, managed to keep the pandemic under control and whether or not it deserves a seat, or least an observer status, in the WHO? 

Taiwan & World Health Organisation (WHO)

China and Taiwan have long been at loggerheads over the immutable nature of the sovereignty issue for China. Taiwan, regarded as the renegade province of China, requires statehood to be a member of WHO. However, Taiwan, due to Beijing’s obstruction and indiscriminate bullying, has persistently faced challenges to participate and be a member of the World Health Assembly (WHA). In 1972, the terms of World Health Assembly resolution WHA25.1 replaced Taiwan with China, and since then, within the WHO, Taiwan is being referred to as “the Taiwan Province of China”. 

From 1997-2009, the United States, along with allies of Taiwan, made consistent joint efforts to seek observer status for Taiwan in the governing body of the WHO known as World Health Assembly (WHA). In 2009, due to the change in Taiwan administration, the relations between ROC and PRC improved. As a result, from 2009-2016, with the approval of the Chinese government, Taiwan attended WHA’s first annual meeting as an observer under the name “Chinese Taipei”. Regrettably, in the 70th WHA meeting (2017) in Geneva, Beijing blocked the annual invitation to ROC due to the apparent differences and animosity between both the countries and their leaders, President Tsai and President Xi, over the “One-China” principle.

Lessons from Perilous Past

Taiwan has been a key contributor and a worldwide model for fighting the global-health crisis. It has been recognized as “a model in the Indo-Pacific region in its provision of affordable and nearly universal healthcare to its populations”. In 2003, Taiwan was one of the worst-hit nations by the severe acute respiratory system (SARS), with more than 1,50,000 people quarantined and 180 people losing their lives. As a result of its early preparation, it created a specific “Central Epidemic Command Center” in 2003 to ensure that timely action can be taken in the event of such an outbreak in the future. In 2014-2015, during the Ebola-pandemic outbreak, Taiwan, along with US, played a huge role in fighting and combating the global health crisis. Moreover, Taiwan is the “first in Asia to implement a national health insurance program“, with a coverage rate of 99.9%.

Taiwan Success Model 

Taiwan, an island with a population of 23.6 million, and given its proximity to China, it has been a rare success model with the number of positive cases being relatively low. After the 2003 outbreak, Taiwan prepared itself for the worst-case scenarios in the future. 

First, in January 2020, it was quick enough to begin testing, electronic monitoring, and inspecting passengers coming from Wuhan, three weeks before China reported its first case. By February, it started facilitating the mask rationing system. Second, the use of big data and technology provided Taiwan with real-time databases to identify the worst affected individuals and immigrants. Third, for technical surveillance, steps like “mandatory online reporting and check-ins for 14 days after travel restrictions and digital fencing for around 55,000 people in home quarantine” were undertaken. Besides this, globally, it has willingly tried to provide transboundary assistance and reached out to the countries in Africa, South-East Asia, Europe, the US, etc. in the form of donating masks and equipment. 

Albeit late, Taiwan’s relative success has been acknowledged by the WHO. Whether it is providing support or experts cooperating by disseminating timely information, Taiwan has continued to assist WHO on the technical front. Dr. Mike Ryan, EXD of WHO Health Emergencies Programme, praised the efforts of Beijing by stating that the health authorities in Taiwan and Taiwan’s CDC deserve praise. They have mounted an outstanding public health response in Taiwan, and one can see that reflected in the numbers. Taiwan health authorities, Taiwan CDC professionals, and health workers in Taiwan have stood on the frontline. 

WHO Director-General Tedros, has also praised India and welcomed PM Modi’s $22.6 billion stimulus package plan to provide necessary “food items for 800 million disadvantaged people, free cooking gas for 80 million household and cash transfers to 204 million poor” for the next three months.

As the WHO constitution (1946) envisages: Health is not just a fundamental right; it is also a basic human right. It is the legal obligation of every state to ensure the highest attainable standard and affordable health care system to its citizens. A right-based approach needs to be adopted that involves giving priority to health policies along with equal participation of state and non-state actors. Today, more than ever, it is imperative that the WHO does not dwarf its growth by subduing itself to political biases and caving to Chinese government pressure. The need of the hour is global cooperation, meaningful participation of all stakeholders and giving Taiwan its rightful voice at the WHA.

*** The author is a Doctoral candidate in United States Studies Program, Centre for Canadian, United States & Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has completed her Masters in Politics ( with specialisation in International Relations) and M.Phil. in United States Studies, JNU ***