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Taiwan’s WHO Ambitions Get Boost from Coronavirus Success

Commuters wear face masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus during the morning rush hour in Taipei, Taiwan.

Taiwan’s long-running campaign for a role in the World Health Organization is getting fresh backing in response to its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has included assistance to other suffering nations.

Taiwan’s long-running campaign for a role in the World Health Organization is getting fresh backing in response to its successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has included assistance to other suffering nations.

The public in Taiwan, considered a breakaway Chinese province by Beijing, were ecstatic when the European Union, in a break with past policy, included an image of Taiwan’s flag on a Twitter posting last week expressing appreciation for a donation of face masks.

"Our flag has appeared on the EU's official tweet," Taiwan's Central News Agency gushed.

It was a breakthrough of sorts for Taiwan after decades of being blocked from any significant role in the WHO by China, which opposes any action that would appear to confer nation status on the autonomously ruled island. Beijing has long been accused of using its economic and political power to pressure member countries to support its stand.

The issue has become more immediate in the face of COVID-19 which has caused about 1.9 million reported infections and more than 118,000 reported deaths worldwide. Despite having one of the world’s best records in fighting the disease Taiwan has been excluded from WHO emergency meetings on the crisis.

However, Taiwan officials are encouraged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s signing last month of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, designed to bring pressure on countries whose actions serve to undermine Taiwan's alliances.

Amid the diplomatic back-and-forth, Taiwan has made its case by simply doing a better job than almost any country of containing the coronavirus. Despite its close proximity to China – where the contagion began – and being one of the first places to be affected, it has held its caseload to just 393 people with a mere six deaths.

Speaking electronically to a conference at the Hudson Institute in Washington last week, Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu attributed that success to social unity, a prompt assessment and allocation of resources, and above all democratic governance.

Wu cited the prompt delegation of authority to Taiwan's center for disease control, known as the CECC, and the competence of the center and its leader as critical.

"The arrangement brought the whole government under the CECC command; which has the full backing of the president and the premier," Wu said.

The agency’s achievement has brought unprecedented popularity and authority to Chen Shih-chung, a dentist by training who currently presides over Taiwan's Ministry of Health and Welfare.

Referring to Chen, Wu told the Hudson Institute audience, "I think I am rather senior among my peers in the cabinet, but when the commander speaks, I can only say, 'yes, sir!'"

Describing Taiwan’s response to the crisis in more detail, Wu said his government was quick to identify potential needs and allocate resources for the fight against the virus.

Medical institutions were "rearranged," he said, enabling the establishment of "160 testing facilities around the country," along with "134 facilities to treat milder cases, or 50 large regional centers for more severe cases." In order to prevent in-hospital outbreaks, Wu said, hospitals "were clearly demarcated internally."

The minister also cited Taiwan's national health insurance policy, "which has 99% of the population enrolled," as key to enabling health authorities to trace patients' contacts and to permitting an equitable society-wide distribution of medical supplies.

Each adult citizen, upon showing proof of citizenship, is allotted nine face masks every two weeks, which come at a cost of 17 cents apiece, and can be obtained at local pharmacies, and now even vending machines. Children are allotted a higher number of masks.

At the heart of Taiwan's success story, Wu said, is its chosen way of governance. He contrasted the democratically ruled island with rule on the mainland by the Communist Party of China, which has been accused of failing to promptly report the initial contagion and is still suspected of hiding its full extent.

“I would say the most important factor is transparency and honesty," Wu said. “[While] we in Taiwan cannot afford to conceal or to lie, Chinese communists are institutionally incapable of telling the truth.”