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'WHO is excluding us under China pressure,' Taiwan minister says

Coronavirus chief urges agency to 'show appropriate attitude'

Chen Shih-chung, the Taiwanese health minister, tells reporters that Taipei should be permitted to participate in the World Health Organization's annual assembly.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- Taiwan's coronavirus czar ripped the World Health Organization on Wednesday for refusing to give the island a seat at the policymaking table, blaming intervention from Beijing.

"The WHO is excluding us from participation because of pressure from China," Chen Shih-chung, Taiwan's minister of health and welfare, told reporters here Wednesday.

The global health body will hold its annual World Health Assembly for two days starting May 18. The international gathering will be conducted online due to the virus pandemic. The assembly serves as the WHO's decision-making body, setting the organization's policies.

Taiwan has reported only 439 infections and six deaths in total as of Wednesday evening. Based on the island's success in containing the coronavirus, Chen has urged the WHO to include Taiwan in the global assembly.

"We have the capability and the aspirations to cooperate with the international community and contribute to the health and safety of mankind," he said.

Beijing's "One China principle," which posits that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China, prevents the island's government from participating in the United Nations or any of its organs, including the WHO.

The island lost observer status at the health assembly in 2017 due to Beijing's campaign to isolate Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has taken a hard line in cross-strait relations.

Despite increasingly louder calls from Japan, the U.S. and Europe to include Taiwan in the assembly, a WHO official said Monday that Taiwan's participation "is a question for the 194 governments of WHO."

Chen argued that the WHO should use its own discretion to allow Taiwan's inclusion, even over China's objections.

"As the world health leader, WHO should show the appropriate attitude to take," he said.

The World Health Assembly, which usually meets in Geneva, will be held online this year.   © Reuters

The health minister acknowledged that Taiwan's prospects for participating in the global roundtable are "difficult to gauge." Although the island has not received an invitation, "we will not give up until the end," Chen said.

Taiwan has independently offered its expertise in infection control. Chen and counterpart Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, spoke via telephone recently.

"We exchanged information and opinions" on the fight against COVID-19, Chen said. Taiwan also is "deepening cooperative relations with European Union nations and others," he added.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently criticized the WHO for what he called the group's acquiescence to China. Trump claims the organization ignored Taiwan's warnings regarding the novel coronavirus at the end of last year.

WHO has disputed this recounting, saying the communication it received from Taiwan came in an email citing reports of atypical pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and that the email made no mention of human-to-human transmission.

Chen insists the WHO dropped the ball in its handling of the outbreak.

"WHO had determined that the information provided by Taiwan held no value, and it neglected to respond as the organization responsible" for global health, Chen said.

The health minister also appeared to obliquely criticize China, citing the importance of revealing accurate information at the beginning of an epidemic.

"Nobody can predict from the outset the magnitude of the crisis unleashed by a new infectious disease. By having nations disclose, share and compile information, that is when we can first raise the effectiveness of the response," he said. "Transparency is exceedingly crucial."

Taiwan's success in containing the coronavirus is based on lessons from the epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, Chen said.

"We put our tragic experience with SARS to good use in forming our response," he said.

Taiwan began guarding against the coronavirus in late 2019. The island enacted strict inspection measures on travelers coming from Wuhan, while authorities also traced and isolated individuals who came into contact with people who tested positive.

The island has reported no cases of native infections for 24 consecutive days through Wednesday. Community-acquired infections have essentially been halted.

Outside of Taiwan, the balance between safety restrictions and human rights remains subject to debate.

"It's important that people be considerate of others, and that we stay true to our better angels," said Chen, who has appealed for the understanding of citizens living under the restrictions during his daily press briefings. "The people have cooperated with the government's response through their own volition, and the disease prevention structure has been able to function naturally."

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