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Global Recognition at Last?

Why Taiwan’s response to Covid-19 must not slip under the radar


Since liberating China in 1949, it has been the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) mission to re-unite the ‘rogue province’ of Taiwan back with its motherland. Taiwan is an island off the southerneastern coast of China, inhabited by 24 million people (The Netherlands, by comparison, has 17 million), and the CCP sees it as a vital piece in its rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Despite China’s intentions, Taiwan has taken a divergent path to its authoritarian counterpart, embracing democracy and its own, distinct cultural identity. It has consistently rejected the mainland’s ‘One China’ policy, and, as a result, has found itself blocked from multilateral bodies that China holds influence over - including the UN (Taiwan was a founding member) and the WHO. Taiwan can now only list 15 diplomatic allies as an increasingly powerful China puts pressure on the rest of the world to sever ties with the island. Despite China’s bullying tactics, Taiwan continues to press for greater international recognition through strong diplomatic relations with the US and innovative economic practices.

For mainland Chinese, it’s not open for debate as to whether Taiwan belongs to China. This is something that is drilled into Chinese students from a young age by the CCP. Whilst in China, I once used a world map I had found on Google images as part of a Powerpoint presentation. I made the grave error (accidentally, I promise) of using a map that had Taiwan shaded in a different colour to mainland China. Within a matter of seconds I was showered with disgruntlement from my audience. It’s one of the (many) peculiarities and contradictions surrounding China: Taiwan is indisputably a part of the mainland, and yet, if anyone from outside China says anything to the contrary, their assertions are met with umbrage rather than logical corrections or downright confusion. To me, this suggests an insecurity over Taiwan’s status, rather than full confidence in the validity of the CCP’s claims to the island. No dialogue is allowed to exist in China over whether Taiwan does in fact have legitimate claims to sovereignty, the mainland's position is simply: “Taiwan is ours, any other take on the issue is uninformed and invalid.”

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In the context of the global pandemic, January 11th feels like a lifetime ago. This was the day in which Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won re-election as President of Taiwan. The DPP has been resolute in rejecting the mainland’s ‘One China’ policy, with Tsai’s electoral success being achieved amid the backdrop of sustained military, economic and diplomatic pressure from China, as well as the failure of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model in Hong Kong that became so apparent throughout the course of 2019. The Taiwanese people took to the ballot in their droves - illustrating how much they cherish their sovereignty and freedoms - and began preparing for a bright future under a leadership that will continue to resist China’s encroachments. When the coronavirus struck China, Taiwan was ready to show the world that it had the system of governance and infrastructure in place to cope.

President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-Wen celebrates her successful re-election in January.

Even prior to the January election, Taiwan had been monitoring arrivals from Wuhan following reports of a spate of unusually contagious pneumonia cases in the city. Taiwan’s National Health Command Center (NHCC) detected SARS-like symptoms in passengers that were monitored after arriving in Taiwan, prompting Tsai’s government to instruct its National Security Council to begin co-ordinating a cross-sector national response. By January 23rd, Taiwan had become the first country to prohibit flights from Wuhan entirely. Mainland Chinese physicians had also detected signs of a potential epidemic in Wuhan before the turn of the year, but were silenced by the CCP for undermining ‘national harmony’ (translates as: the CCP’s iron grip over China). The tragic consequences of this gagging of scientific professionals reached their nadir with the now infamous death of Dr Li Wenliang after he contracted the virus that he had been trying to warn people about. Were mainland China functioning under a political system that encourages the free flow of information and were it ruled by a government that prioritises the wellbeing of its populace, who's to say that the initial cases of the virus couldn’t have been altogether contained? 

Mainland Chinese, Hong Kongers, and Taiwanese alike took to social media to mourn the death of Dr Li Wenliang.

The CCP, paralysed in denial over the contagiousness of the virus, allowed Covid-19 to disseminate across the country and beyond as millions of Chinese citizens took off for Chinese New Year. Taiwan, by contrast, moved to close its borders and produced a list of 124 action items to protect public health. Its government had learned the lessons from the SARS epidemic in 2003 and was therefore primed to activate a rapid response to the coronavirus outbreak at the click of Tsai's fingers. The action items included the electronic tracking of individuals placed in quarantine and the release of 4 million masks a day by local producers. Jason Wang, a Taiwanese doctor and associate professor of paediatrics at Stanford Medicine wrote at the time: “Well-trained and experienced teams of officials were quick to recognise the crisis and have activated emergency management structures to address the emerging outbreak."

Despite Taiwan being capitalist and China nominally communist, Taiwan boasts a world class public health system and universal coverage for its citizens. China possesses neither. Within Taiwan's nationalised health system, every citizen is assigned a health card, embedded with a chip to reflect their medical history. This enables hospitals and the central government to openly share information on visitor entrance and wider trends in patient symptoms, making it easier for policy-makers to utilise big data and react to early warning signs of national health threats. Taiwan's greatest success was that the country and its hospitals were ready prior to the emergence of patient zero. The country's shrewd approach to healthcare and disease prevention should provide a template for other countries when they are eventually able to sit down and review their preparedness for the pandemic.

Taiwan was considered the most at risk territory outside of China by when the virus began its nefarious journey across the globe. At the time of writing, six people (yes, six) in Taiwan have died of coronavirus. The UK, a country 7,000km further away from China than Taiwan in which the first case of coronavirus was detected days after Taiwan’s first case, has over 10,000 casualties.

How did Taiwan become the world’s leading light in controlling the spread of Covid-19? As well as being rapid and decisive, the Taiwanese leadership’s response to the virus was typically transparent. JAMA, a US-based biomedical journal, recently released a report on Taiwan’s response to Covid-19, upon which it concluded that: “In addition to daily press briefings by the minister of health and welfare, the vice president of Taiwan, a prominent epidemiologist, gave regular public service announcements. These announcements included when and where to wear a mask, the importance of handwashing, and the danger of hoarding masks to prevent them from becoming unavailable to frontline health workers.” The notion of ruling institutions being held to account is a clear advantage that democracies possess when faced with crises such as pandemics. Whilst an authoritarian government conceals information from the public and controls the narrative to protect its own livelihood ahead of public health, a democratically-elected government knows that any sign of it misleading its people could prove a fatal blow to its electability. A total erosion of civil liberties need not occur if democratic governments use foresight and can build public trust through effective communication. The Taiwanese government’s hands-on, transparent approach to tackling Covid-19 - and the consequent public buy-in - is a slap in the face to those who preach that only autocratic countries like China are able react competently in crisis situations.

Soldiers carry out a drill to prevent to spread of cover-19 in Taiwan's capital city, Taipei. Taiwan's response has been a team effort.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Taiwan is excluded from the WHO at Beijing's behest. This meant that Taiwan was left to fight the virus blind, unable to gather critical information on the nature and contagiousness of Covid-19. For this reason alone, it’s remarkable that Taiwan’s containment of the virus was so successful, however, without WHO data and support, it may not be as fortunate next time. It would be a travesty if millions of human lives were lost because of petty geopolitics. Perhaps more immediately concerning for the world is that Taiwan is unable to play its part in the current global response. Would it not be beneficial to have access to expertise from a nation that has managed to keep its death count in single figures? Imagine that a fire starts in your kitchen. Who do you ask to help you put it out? The neighbour who failed to recognise the damage the fire could cause before hosing down a half-burnt house; or the neighbour who reacted with urgency to put out the fire with only a charred wooden spoon to pay? Last Wednesday, in a gesture akin to sticking two Taiwanese fingers up to the WHO, Tsai announced that her nation would independently donate 10 million to countries worst hit by covid. Taiwan knows that it has to make the most of any opportunity to score points and - quite literally - put itself on the map. 

Unfortunately, it’s fanciful to believe that Taiwan will be given the entry to multilateral institutions it so craves when this current impasse is over. The WHO - headed by a former Marxist who China campaigned for to be Director-General in 2017  - seems determined to ignore Taiwan’s pleas for membership. This was made abundantly clear in tragically comical fashion during a recent interview between Hong Kong news reporter Yvonne Tong and WHO adviser Bruce Aylward. Tong asks Aylward the perfectly legitimate question of whether Taiwan has earned membership to the WHO through its response to the coronavirus, to which the WHO representative appears to either not hear or acknowledge the question, and pushes Tong to move onto the next question instead of repeating herself. She continues to probe Aylward about Taiwan, prompting him to hang up on the call. After he’s eventually coaxed back onto the line, Tong manages to sneak in a final Taiwan question, to which Aylward responds that “when you look across all the different areas in China they’ve all done quite a good job”. The Taiwanese foreign minister, Joseph Wu, hastily took to Twitter to mock the fact that the WHO are unable to even utter the word “Taiwan”. The optics didn't look great for an organisation that has been trying to stave off criticism that it aided China's initial cover-up of the virus.

WHO representative Michael Aylward fails to acknowledge a particularly difficult question from Yvonne Tong - or perhaps he's simply hard of hearing?

As for the international community, it’s time that we take note of the success story that Taiwan continues to pen. In spite of constant knee-capping by China and exclusion from global institutions, Taiwan flourishes as a thriving, fully independent democracy. We don’t have to take to the streets denouncing the WHO or the CCP (that would be in breach of social distancing regulations, anyway) but making ourselves aware of Taiwan’s plight will make a difference when diplomatic disputes with China inevitably erupt in the future. World leaders are afraid of poking the China bear for fear of being bitten economically, so it’s up to electorates to demonstrate to their governments that the Taiwan ‘problem’ is one they can sympathise with. With regards to the current moment, the coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy that has exposed failures in policy-making across the world, but, perhaps more than anything else, it’s proven that we have become over-reliant on a health system that perceives the world as competing states. Taiwan has shown the value in mutual cooperation and the sharing of information, hopefully it will now receive the recognition it deserves and a platform to bring its qualities to the world table.


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