Taiwan, a nation of 23 million, is showing China, WHO, and the world how it is done. Taiwan has kept numbers of COVID-19 cases down to 388. Of the total cases, 333 were imported cases, and 55 indigenous; there have been only six deaths. In combating COVID-19, Taiwan’s strategy has been straightforward—proactive, prepared from the start, and second-guessing China’s health authorities. And, if that wasn’t enough, Taiwan chose to second-guess the World Health Organization.
Taiwan’s success has punched holes into the credibility of China, and WHO. The failure of China’s local government to be transparent about the outbreak is well-known. WHO stands increasingly beleaguered too, as accusations of being China’s mouthpiece mount—WHO’s tweets were based on information provided by China.
Unlike others, Taiwan treated the outbreak in China with utmost urgency, beginning with inspecting arrivals from Wuhan on December 31, the day after Dr Li Wenliang broke news of it. According to reports, in January, Taiwan sent experts to China who were not allowed to see patients, or visit the market where the outbreak was reported. Taiwan concluded that the situation was more serious than what was being reported and began to prepare. Going against WHO advice against closing off borders, Taiwan banned entry of Wuhan residents on January 23 (the day China declared a lockdown), and all Chinese visitors on February 6.
On December 31, Taiwan says it wrote to WHO asking if COVID-19 could be transmitted human-to-human, given China was isolating patients. WHO contests that Taiwan didn’t ask this explicitly. Taiwan says that not being a WHO member worked against it; it couldn’t share or receive timely information.
Taiwan has used this hook to wrangle with WHO. The nature of its spat with WHO is no doubt political, as Taiwan, excluded from the body, wants in. But, it has also made a critical point. Taiwan asked the right, if uncomfortable and implicit, questions early on. It is another question as to whether WHO was in the right to delay calling the outbreak a pandemic, that too based on information given out by the Chinese authorities.
Unsurprisingly, WHO has come under the scanner. US president Donald Trump has gone as far as to label WHO ‘China centric’. Japanese finance minister Taro Aso has said that some are calling WHO, CHO—the Chinese Health Organization. An online petition calling for the resignation of WHO’s Director General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is also gaining ground.
That WHO’s tweets on the outbreak reflect(ed) what Chinese authorities were saying has been incriminating. On January 14, the WHO account tweeted there was ‘no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission’, just as China did. A spokesperson of WHO attributed the death of China’s whistle-blower doctor to human error, ‘the confusion that happens at the beginning of an epidemic’. On January 20, China declared that COVID-19 was transmittable human-to-human. WHO declared COVID-19 a global health emergency only on January 27, and a pandemic only on March 10. These delays have led to scepticism, particularly in the US, the largest donor to WHO. In the US, Republicans are already baying for WHO’s blood.
Under these circumstances, Taiwan is not being shy about its success in keeping cases down. #TaiwanCanHelp has been trending. The country claims it caught the bull by its horns, at the right time, by implementing 124 actions ranging from border control and case identification to quarantining suspicious cases and relief for business—all in a transparent manner, as befits a democracy. Taiwan cashed in on big data—collating the databases of National Immigration Agency and National Health Insurance Administration to identify those with history of travel to affected areas. This was shared with hospitals (in Taiwan, health data of patients is centralised). Further, patients’ travel and medical histories were made immediately accessible.
Early in January, Taiwan set up the Central Epidemic Command Center, spearheaded by the health minister. The state took over face mask distribution from the private sector on January 31, and implemented policy limiting the number of masks one could buy from pharmacies.
Contrary to WHO advice, Taiwan ramped up production of masks. By January, it had a stockpile of 44 mn surgical masks, 1.9 mn N95 masks, and 1,100 negative pressure isolation rooms. #TaiwanCanHelp has pledged to donate 10 million masks to the US and 11 European countries.
The unfolding story has three distinct dimensions. Given global backlash, China is seeking diplomatic redemption as it donates masks and medical equipment to the world. This has been an uphill task, what with complaints of faulty masks and less-than-accurate medical equipment pouring in from Spain, Turkey, and the Netherlands. But, countries like Serbia have embraced China’s ‘mask diplomacy’, and are flying high the Chinese flag. China’s medical supplies have reached the African Union, and New York’s Central Park. In this context, president Xi Jinping has been braver still, and broached a delicate matter—China’s ‘health Silk road’, a play on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
In contrast, for Taiwan, it is a matter of political survival. In February, Chinese jets, and H-6 bombers briefly crossed the mid-line in the Taiwan Strait, stoking tension. In March, the US passed the TAIPEI Act to support Taiwan in strengthening its alliances.
But, Taiwan is recognised by only a handful of countries. It is still recoiling from several countries switching allegiance to China. Taiwan is not a UN member, and only participates in global and regional organisations such as WTO, ADB, and APEC.
Taiwan is in the ‘mask diplomacy’ race, and has found a caveat to join WHO. While it suggests that WHO failed to answer if there were dangers of human-to-human transmission, Dr Tedros, who hails from Ethiopia, has accused Taiwan of trolling him on the internet with ‘racist slurs’. Taiwan’s foreign ministry has called the accusations ‘imaginary’, saying it has ‘absolutely not instigated our people to personally attack the WHO’s director-general, and have absolutely not made any racist comments’. It says China is behind the disinformation campaign.
In sum, WHO is on shaky empirical and moral ground, having regurgitated China’s health authorities’ claims without systemic checks. China’s ‘diplomacy of generosity’ has lacked transparency and flourish. No doubt, China needs to negotiate the global backlash in a slower, and more polished manner. For example, China’s ‘conspiracy theory’ blaming US soldiers for the COVID-19 outbreak, or twisting words of Italian scientist Giuseppe Remuzzi to suggest the virus started in Italy have backfired badly. Remuzzi has called China’s actions a textbook example of ‘propaganda’. As for Taiwan, it has taken off from where China’s whistle-blower Dr Li Wenliang left—as the political whistle-blower.
The author is Singapore-based Sinologist & adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies. Views are personal