OTTAWA — Canada, the United States and six major allies have told the World Health Organization that its ongoing exclusion of Taiwan has created a serious public health concern during the COVID-19 crisis.
That sharp message was delivered in a letter, a draft of which has been viewed by The Canadian Press, that tells WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus to allow Taiwan to be given observer status at a major meeting of the organization on Monday.
Geneva-based diplomats from Canada, Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Britain, Japan and the U.S. issued the demand orally in a May 7 meeting with two other senior WHO officials, with the envoys from Washington and Tokyo taking the lead.
Canadian health officials also took part Friday in a videoconference that was hosted by Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare, said a senior government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue due to its sensitivity.
Support for Taiwan is controversial because China vigorously opposes granting any such access. It views Taiwan as a breakaway province and wants the world to heed its “one-China policy.”
While Canada does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, it does maintain trade and cultural relations, and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has said the island’s presence as a non-state observer at this week’s meetings would help the pandemic fight.
The draft of the letter delivers a sharp explanation of that point: it says Taiwan’s early success at controlling the pandemic qualifies it for a seat at the World Health Assembly meetings, and the letter essentially tells the agency to stop playing politics.
“Taiwan’s isolation from the global health community not only presents a serious public health concern, but also is an obstacle that hampers ongoing and future efforts,” letter states.
The letter also says the international community is “harmed” when important health information is not permitted to “flow freely and easily.”
The letter calls Taiwan a capable and responsible player in the world’s health community, and says it has scientific and technical expertise “that could help save lives around the world.”
The letter says it was “regrettable” that the WHO broke with its guiding principles by excluding Taiwan from the assembly. It defines the WHO’s guiding principle as ensuring that “all people” have a right to the highest health standards, regardless of political belief, race, religion or economic or social conditions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke Friday with his British counterpart Boris Johnson and they discussed their work together in “various international organizations, and committed to continuing to work together on shared priorities such as combating climate change and promoting democratic values,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
The WHO has faced accusations from U.S. President Donald Trump and Canada’s Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer that it is too cozy with China, and that the People’s Republic was not forthcoming to the international health agency as the pandemic was breaking out in Wuhan earlier this year.
The move is politically sensitive for Canada because it is mired in a dispute with China over what Canada calls the “arbitrary” imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Despite co-operation on health and trade since the pandemic’s outbreak, relations between Canada and China have been severely strained since the RCMP arrested Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on an American extradition warrant in December 2018.
China arrested Kovrig and Spavor nine days later in what is widely viewed as retaliation and has levelled accusations that the former diplomat and the entrepreneur were engaged in actions undermining China’s national security. Canada has marshalled a broad coalition of international support calling for their release and that has angered Chinese leaders.
The message in the letter to the WHO is echoed a new report released this past week by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, an agency of Congress that advises on the national security implications of trade with China. It says Taiwan’s continued exclusion from the WHO is “jeopardizing global health.”
The report noted the WHO ignored Taiwan’s early requests for information about the pandemic, which it said created “critical delays” in how other countries responded.
“The spread of the virus to 185 countries — with more than four million confirmed cases and 286,000 deaths worldwide as of May 12 — demonstrates the deadly ramifications of China’s influence over the WHO for the international community’s pandemic preparedness,” says the U.S. report.
“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.”
As of Tuesday, Taiwan had 440 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a “stunningly low” number in a population of 23.6 million, the report said.
Adam Austen, a spokesman for Champagne, reiterated Canada’s support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international multilateral fora where its presence provides important contributions to the public good.”
Canada has “clearly communicated” to the WHO that Taiwan should be allowed to take part in the upcoming World Health Assembly meetings, said Austin.
“We continue to encourage the WHO to engage with experts from Taiwan and to support Taiwan’s meaningful inclusion in global discussions on health.”
The spokesman for China’s foreign ministry once again registered Beijing’s strong objections on Friday to including Taiwan at the WHO, calling it an attempt to “seek independence under the pretext of the pandemic with the help of some Western countries.”
Spokesman Zhao Lijian said the “few countries” that are backing Taiwan “are only aiming to politicize the health issue to seek selfish political gains,” according to a translation of his remarks on his ministry’s website. He said that would only result in “hijacking the WHA and undermining global anti-pandemic co-operation.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2020.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press