When Politics Ails Health

No more people should perish because the World Health Organization and, notably, China, bar Taiwan.

In the center of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, stands the world's tallest building. Its state-of-the-art design promises safety for its residents in virtually every scenario, even an earthquake as strong as the one that hit Taiwan in 1999. That quake took the lives of more than 2,000 people, serving as a reminder that the island country is not only vulnerable to the wrath of nature, but also to the unfair whims of international relief agencies supposedly designed to help in times of urgent need. Such agencies failed to help Taiwan in its hour of need.

Two more deadly jolts hit the island in 1998 and 2003, when a wave of enterovirus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, hit Taiwan. For epidemiological assistance, Taiwan turned to the World Health Organization (WHO), the sole global organization that claims to be dedicated to "health for all," and was rebuffed. As a result, hundreds of people, many of them children, perished.

China's animosity has long kept Taiwan out of the United Nations, and the WHO, a special agency of the UN, has followed suit. This, despite the fact that health has no borders, humanity no borders, and of course disease respects no borders.

As stated in the WHO constitution, one of the fundamental rights of every human being regardless of race, religion, political belief, and economic or social condition is the enjoyment of the best standard of health.

To meet the needs of people in non-states like Malta, Puerto Rico, and the Palestinian Authority, or in semi-sovereign states such as Niue, Tokelau, and the Cook Islands, the WHO has granted these entities observer status.

Yet Taiwan, a vibrant democracy which is the world's 17th-largest economy, with 23 million people — a population larger than three-quarters of the WHO's member states — is denied admission even as an observer.

In such areas as global health policy discussions, technology exchanges, terrorist bio-chemical attacks, and the monitoring, prevention, and cure of epidemic diseases, Taiwan is cut off from information, cooperation, contributions, and benefits of the global system because it is not a member of the WHO. Although Taiwan has been able to indirectly gain health information, it is often a case of too little, too late.

Not only is Taiwan harmed by this situation, but so are those nations which could benefit from Taiwan's experience and financial assistance, if only the WHO would let them. Even without membership, Taiwan has contributed over 300 million dollars in medical and humanitarian aid to some 95 countries over the last ten years, but the country could donate more money more efficiently if part of the WHO system.

Taiwan has made several major breakthroughs and excellent progress in improving public health, including researching and preventing black foot disease and arseniasis, setting up emergency medical systems, and much more. Work done in isolation can only go so far, however. If allowed direct and unobstructed participation in international health forums and programs, Taiwan's strength could be joined with that of other nations to ensure better health sooner, worldwide.

Taiwan certainly understands politics and the realities of the world. But health care is such a pressing issue that Taiwan is not alone in seeing the importance of its participation in world health matters. The United States and Japan have publicly supported Taiwan's WHO bids in the past, and the European Union has also joined in supporting they country's meaningful participation in the WHO.

Earthquakes hit Taiwan frequently; there is no way they can be avoided. As bad as they can be, international politics should not make them worse. No more people should perish because the World Health Organization and, notably, China, bar Taiwan.

Ben Shao is director of the Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, Taiwan's representative office in the tri-state area.