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Let’s show WHO how to welcome Taiwan




By Pingyuan "Edward" Lu

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when Guam Visitors Bureau and Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Guam hosted a beach cleanup event right before this year’s Earth Day.


Vice Speaker Tina Barnes of the 37th Guam legislature, took the opportunity to present a resolution unanimously passed by all senators expressing support for Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization.

 

The resolution is not the first one that Guam legislature passed for Taiwan’s WHO issues. One thing that is worth noticing is Japan Consul-General for Guam Ishigami Rumiko made an appearance for the resolution-presenting ceremony during the beach cleanup event. It has never happened before.

 

Prior to showing support in Guam, Japan’s foreign minister Yōko Kamikawa joined with her counterparts from the member states of the Group of Seven (G7) officially expressing support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations, including in the World Health Assembly and WHO technical meetings” in G7 Italy 2024 foreign ministers’ statement released on April 19.

 

The World Health Assembly (WHA) is the annual meeting of the WHO. When the organization was under the leadership of Dr. Margaret Chan, the former WHO Director-General, Taiwan actually got invited to join the WHA as an observer from 2009 to 2016 and had contributed to numerous WHO technical meetings.


However, unbelievably, Taiwan was not included in the WHA at all from 2020 to 2022 while the world needs to share all available information and expertise to combat the Covid-19 pandemic together although Taiwan obviously had a successful result of Covid-19 response at the time.

 

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While the novel coronavirus was emerging in China’s Wuhan city in December 2019, there were actually around 20 direct flights a week between Wuhan and Taipei. The virus could easily get to Taiwan and rapidly spread within communities. However, it was flu season. Many Taiwanese, especially those who live in crowded cities, were promptly wearing masks as usual during the season.


Taiwan’s well-established public health system was also reminding people to thoroughly practice personal hygiene for flu prevention at the time. They were believed to be the most important reasons why Taiwan, an island nation being so close to the origin of the virus, did not suffer from Covid-19 as much as other countries did at the early and the most critical stage of the pandemic.

 

Unfortunately, Taiwan’s Covid-19 response experience has never been shared through the WHO network when many countries obviously needed it.

 

In fact, the incompetence of the current WHO management has been demonstrated not only in the Taiwan issue.

 

In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries, especially in Asia, had realized the use of face masks by the public could reduce transmission of the coronavirus and urged their citizens to wear masks. The U.S. officers announced their new advice that recommended masks for all people over age two at a White House briefing on April 3, 2020. The WHO management did not support the mask recommendation until June 5, 2020.

 

At the time, a New York Times story mentioned that the WHO “announcement was long overdue, critics said, as masks are an easy and inexpensive preventive measure.”

 

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After COVID-19 vaccines finally became available, people were still worried about several emerging variants of the coronavirus because breakthrough cases were happening around the world.


When the Omicron variant came, WHO management hastily released its warning message on the new variant in November 2021 instead of waiting for sufficient morbidity and fatality data to be collected. It triggered many countries’ panicked decisions to tighten Covid restrictions. It’s very sad that South Africa’s variant identification efforts, which should have been appreciated, made its people punished by the almost worldwide travel ban.

 

The wait wasn’t even long. Before Christmas, at least three scientific researches caught the media’s attention and proved the Omicron variant may be much more contagious but it’s mostly causing mild cases. However, the chaos has hurt people. For example, Guam, which finally saw a little bit of tourism recovery in November, immediately suffered from more than 5000 travel booking cancellations right after the Omicron panic widely spread.

 

If the current WHO management doesn’t realize its own problems and still ignore the interests and benefits that Taiwan’s participation could bring, we, islanders in the region, should wake them up and show them what WHO is missing out.

 

The Pacific Island Health Officers Association (PIHOA) is a non-profit organization that represents the collective interests of the health officers of the U.S.-affiliated Pacific islands including American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The organization’s biennial meeting of laboratories was just held in Guam last month. The organizers of similar meetings in the future can consider the participation of Taiwanese experts.

 

The University of Guam is going to host Guam/Micronesia Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program’s dementia care conference on May 11. Scholars, experts, and health officers from Taiwan should be happy with joining and sharing their expertise when the university has similar conferences next time.

 

It is worth noticing that Taiwan well established its public health system a long time before Covid-19 hit the world.

 

Taiwan’s public health professionals worked hard to reduce polio cases in the 70s and 80s. They have been trying their best to regularly visit tuberculosis patients in every community and village around Taiwan to make sure patients followed the instructions of taking pills. They also help people eliminate mosquito breeding sites every summer to prevent dengue fever. The public health system is also one of the main reasons why Taiwan could mitigate the impact caused by the enterovirus 71 epidemic in 1998 and SARS in 2003. 

 

Taiwan’s medical community also leveraged the country’s strength of digital technology to develop telehealth platforms in the past several years. It could help public health workers keep an eye on the health conditions of their clients, making it much easier to bring community health practice up to a new horizon. So, learning from their past experiences as well as current developments could be very helpful for health professionals in our region.

 

The WHO’s six-day annual assembly for 2024 will start on May 27. The organization should return to the pragmatic protocol, which was practiced from 2009 to 2016, of inviting Taiwan as an observer to the meeting format of WHA. If the current management still sets Taiwan’s participation aside, WHO members should form a better team through this year’s WHA to prevent this organization from deteriorating.


Pingyuan “Edward” Lu is the president of Guåhan Global Foundation. He holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and master’s degree in public health and international management, respectively. With solid experience of more than 25 years in health promotion, he is currently leading Guåhan Global Foundation to promote peace, health, and sustainability in Guam and the region.




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