2003 May 05 Monday
First World Health Organization Taiwan Visit In 30 Years

Consider the irony. For many weeks the WHO complained that China would not allow it much access to information about SARS or to hospitals or other health care facilities Yet at the same time the WHO was refusing to visit Taiwan, where SARS had also spread, because the United Nations does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country. The WHO took far longer to break down and visit Taiwan than the Chinese governmeent took to break down and start cooperating with the WHO.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) met with Taiwan officials for the first visit time in 30 years, underlining the seriousness of an outbreak that killed two more on the island on Monday.

In a sign that politics was being put aside -- at least temporarily -- to combat the growing spread of SARS, two doctors from the WHO arrived in Taipei on Saturday for a landmark 13-day visit that was approved by China.

The WHO should be ashamed of their hypocrisy. Taiwan is doubly wronged here. First it is the victim of the Chinese government SARS cover-up which caused the SARS virus to spread more widely and brought more SARS cases to Taiwan as a result. Plus, it is the victim of a United Nations double standard that places a democracy beyond the pale while it embraces a dictatorial regime.

Compare the WHO response to the outbreak in Vietnam. A large number of infectious disease control experts flew into Vietnam at the WHO's behest and were able to entirely halt the spread of SARS in Vietnam.

On March 13, the Health Ministry set up a task force. Days later, a dozen epidemiologists and pathologists had arrived from Britain, the United States, Sweden, Germany, France and Australia.

"You need a heap of people to chase the cases, read the notes, find out what's going on, respond to new things, help set up new measures," said Aileen Plant, the WHO coordinator for the SARS expert team. "Are you following the contacts? Are you putting infection control in place? What are you going to do with a dead body? Can people breast-feed? All of these sorts of things, you've got to think about really fast

The WHO is one of the few UN-affiliated institutions that provides a useful service to the world. Yet it is just as willing to put political considerations in the way of fighting a disease outbreak as the Chinese government.

Update: The Taiwanese government hopes the SARS outbreak will help it to get WHO membership.

Taipei covets WHO membership, at least as an observer, because WHO is a UN organization, membership of which would give Taiwan some of the diplomatic legitimacy that it wants and Beijing does so much to deny it. It also feels that WHO is the international UN-related organization most vulnerable to Taiwan lobbying for membership both because of a moral argument - why should Taiwanese have their health endangered because of lack of access to medical know-how as a result of China's politicking? - and a practical one - everyone has an interest in making sure countries with killer diseases don't export them.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 May 05 09:48 AM  UN, International Institutions


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