A showdown is looming at next week’s annual meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Switzerland. For almost a decade, Taiwan — despite not being a member of the United Nations — has been permitted to attend WHO events as an observer. But, so far, its invitation for this year’s event in Geneva has not arrived.
That’s because of the rising political tensions between Taiwan and the Chinese government in Beijing. China does not recognize Taiwan as a state, and Taiwanese officials were previously invited to the WHO meeting with the approval of Beijing. The hard line from the Chinese mainland towards the island’s latest government, which took office last May, has placed the WHO between a diplomatic rock and a hard place.
It is not surprising that global health has become ensnared in world politics in this way, but it’s still disappointing — particularly given that it deflates the mood of cooperation that had allowed Taiwan to participate since 2009.
That arrangement followed Taiwan’s 2003 exclusion from WHO discussions on how to contain the outbreak of the SARS virus — which roamed across both the island and the Chinese mainland. Taiwan raised a fuss about that decision. There is no way to know whether the exclusion hampered its efforts to control the virus. (The epidemiologist Chen Chien-Jen, who was Taiwan’s health minister at the time, says that this was the case.) But despite being one of the last places to be hit by the outbreak, the island struggled to limit the damage — 181 people there died (K.-T. Chen et al. Int. J. Infect. Dis. 9, 77–85; 2005).
The WHO recognizes the UN’s 1971 decision that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China,…