Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Taipei Times: China's `concern' makes us sick

Taiwan's bid for full WHO membership was thwarted on Monday after the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a motion by a vote of 148 to 17 to exclude the issue from its agenda.

China was quick to hail the decision as a political victory backing its claims to Taiwan. Beijing's attitude made it amply clear that China viewed the issue as political from the start and that it was not concerned about the health rights of Taiwanese.

However, those who voted against Taiwan's bid for full membership in the WHO cannot simply wash their hands and walk away. They are equally guilty of turning a blind eye to the rights of 23 million people and for leaving a missing link in the global health framework by yielding to political pressure and excluding Taiwan.

The organization as a whole and its individual member states seem unbothered by the contradiction between a body's mandate to prioritize global health issues -- above political agendas -- and blocking an entire nation from that body.

China and its supporters argue that Taiwan is not left out of the network because China has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the WHO, magnanimously promising to look after Taiwanese.

Forget politics. The reality of Taiwan's health system is that it is completely and utterly independent of China. The French might as well promise to protect the health of Germans.

Chinese Health Minister Gao Qiang claimed that the MOU -- which China signed with the WHO to shore up the "one China" principle in a body that is supposed to be apolitical -- has enabled Taiwan to send 23 experts to various technical conferences organized by the WHO.

What many do not know or choose to ignore is that the MOU restricts Taiwan's right to attend WHO forums and workshops on the latest developments in the diagnosis and control of pandemics and other vital issues. It also restricts the status of officials Taiwan is allowed to send and grants China the authority to approve or reject Taiwan's applications to attend workshops.

China has repeatedly delayed its approval of Taiwan's applications, even when turned in needlessly early, so that the Taiwanese representatives would not receive the go-ahead in time to take part in these conferences.

The SARS outbreak in 2003 claimed 73 lives in Taiwan, making it the country with the third-highest number of deaths after China and Hong Kong. Taiwan was forced to cope with SARS alone for about two months before the WHO sent two health experts to help deal with the crisis. Bizarrely, the WHO had to wait for the go-ahead from Beijing officials that have no control over Taiwan's health system and other agencies that were involved in containing the SARS virus.

How long will the WHO and its member states allow Taiwan to remain in this untenable position? One way or another, Taiwan is better off without China's magnanimity.

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