TAIPEI (Reuters) – Lives have been lost in the coronavirus pandemic because of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) exclusion of Taiwan and refusal to allow it to share best practices and information, a top U.S. government commission on China said.
The United States has repeatedly clashed with China over its refusal to allow non-WHO member Taiwan, claimed by China as one of its provinces, full access to the body, becoming another source of rising tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Self-ruled Taiwan says China and the WHO have conspired for political purposes to lock it out of key meetings, that the WHO has not responded to its requests for coronavirus information and that the WHO has previously misreported Taiwan’s virus case numbers.
The WHO and China strongly dispute this, saying Taiwan has been given all the help it needs, but that only China has the right to represent the democratic island in the WHO.
In a report released on Tuesday, the U.S. Congress’ U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said Taiwan’s exclusion contributed to “critical delays” in timely receipt and accurate guidance for WHO members in the early stages of the outbreak.
“Had the WHO allowed Taiwan’s health experts to share information and best practices in early January, governments around the world could have had more complete information on which to base their public health policies,” it said.
One of Taiwan’s main complaints is that the WHO ignored its request for information in late December on the potential for human-to-human transmission. The WHO has said an email it received from Taiwan made no mention of human-to-human transmission.
China confirmed virus transmission between people on Jan. 20. On Jan. 12, the WHO had said there was no clear evidence of such transmission.
“In this respect, the WHO’s suppression of information provided by Taiwan and the delayed issuance of its own guidance undermined the national security of the very member states trusting it for authoritative public health guidance,” the U.S. commission said.
“The lives lost as a result of these missteps offer a tragic reminder of how global health is compromised by the WHO’s politically-motivated exclusion of Taiwan,” it added.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said there were arrangements that guarantee Taiwan is able to deal with public health incidents internationally or locally.
“The report by this so-called commission is from start to finish a distortion of the facts and full of prejudice,” he told a daily news briefing.
Taiwan, with the strong backing of the United States and some of its major allies, is lobbying to be allowed access as an observer to next week’s meeting of the WHO’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly.
But China says it won’t support this and the WHO says it has no mandate on its own to invite Taiwan.
Taiwan has reported only 440 coronavirus cases and seven deaths, far lower than many of its neighbours, thanks to early and effective prevention work and its first rate health system.
China, under its “one China” policy, considers Taiwan ineligible for state-to-state relations or membership of bodies like the WHO. Taiwan has diplomatic relations with only 15 countries, almost all small and developing.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Editing by Nick Macfie