How Taiwan Contributes to Global Health, Even From the Outside

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How Taiwan Contributes to Global Health, Even From the Outside

Director-General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Melbourne Ray Ming-Tse Lu discusses Taiwan’s WHA absence and how Taiwan contributes to global health regardless.

How Taiwan Contributes to Global Health, Even From the Outside
Credit: Depositphotos

Next week, the World Health Assembly (WHA) will convene in Geneva. Taiwan will once again be absent from this year’s assembly. Taipei lost its observer status in the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2017.  

The Diplomat’s Grant Wyeth spoke to Director-General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Melbourne Ray Ming-Tse Lu about Taiwan’s absence, and how it is aligning itself to global health priorities despite being locked out of the WHO.

Taiwan previously held observer status at the World Health Assembly from 2009 to 2016. Can you explain the process by which observer status was gained in 2009, and the reasons why Taiwan was blocked from participation in 2017?

I think it’s been well established for quite some time that China feels justified in misusing frameworks for international cooperation and the betterment of humanity to prosecute what is essentially a disagreement between neighbors. This isn’t the place to discuss the details of the cross-strait relationship, but suffice it to say that this is part of a coordinated and long running campaign on China’s part to isolate Taiwan.

On the issue of Taiwan’s path to regaining observer status, we remain hopeful. In the intervening years Taiwan’s capacity to contribute to the WHO’s mission has gone from strength to strength. We are optimistic about acceptance on our own merit, and as for the other obstacles, we’ve observed a steady decline in international tolerance for this kind of conduct.   

Does Taiwan have the support of other countries to regain observer status, or full member status?

Absolutely. There are quite a few who believe, as we do, that Taiwan was and remains eminently well equipped to contribute to global healthcare missions. Many countries, such as the U.S., U.K., Australia, France, Japan, Lithuania, Canada, [and] the Czech Republic, have voiced strong support for our return to observer status, with many also expressing strong disapproval of the actions which had led to our exclusion since 2017.

The U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, particularly in a statement published in early May, urged the WHO to invite Taiwan to participate in the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) as an observer.

How does Taiwan seek to overcome its exclusion from major global institutions?

We in Taiwan like to keep calm and carry on, so when we find ourselves blocked from key institutions, we just get on with trying to do good via different pathways. As a modern democracy, Taiwan has a deep sense of our shared mission to act for the betterment of humanity worldwide, regardless of which conferences our leaders attend.  

Taiwan is still an active part of the international community, with many strong friendships all over the world. At present, we have been excluded from some key bodies, but this hasn’t stopped us from working directly with our allies and partners, as Taiwan is determined to continue to contribute, in any way we can, to projects of importance to the entire world. Our intention is to continue to demonstrate our consistent good global citizenship and goodwill, in the hope that even more members of the international community will respond more firmly to misuses of our global framework of institutions.

What are the primary lessons that Taiwan learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that would be essential to incorporate into the global health infrastructure?

I think the most important aspect was our internalization of the bitter lessons we learned from SARS. Basically, we identified three crucial Ts – time, trust, and transparency. Taiwan was able to activate the Central Epidemic Command Center and implement strict disease controls very early on. Post SARS, we used technology to embed medical and location data into our National Health Insurance Card system. This meant we were also able to bring our citizens on board very early, which is arguably more important than anything else. Essentially, we were ready and able to respond rapidly, to communicate early and often, and test and monitor effectively. Given this, our thinking is that it’s crucial that governments apply the lessons they learned from COVID, and sooner rather than later.

What are the current major global health concerns where Taiwan’s expertise would help address or mitigate?

The fastest growing health threat in our region is non-transmissible conditions related to lifestyle, like heart disease or diabetes. Prevention, care, and diagnostics for these ailments can be highly challenging, especially in less developed or more rural areas. Most people, including the WHO, agree that education and awareness are among the most important countermeasures, and Taiwan is uniquely well placed to help. The innovations I just mentioned around health administration and communications are a case in point – Taiwan is great at connectivity, and we’d love to share that with the rest of the world.

The WHO’s Thirteenth General Program of Work aims to have 1 billion more people benefit from universal health coverage by 2025. How can Taiwan’s participation in WHO help it achieve this goal?

Taiwan has a universal healthcare system, and we have long been advocates for more widespread access to health as a human right. Where Taiwan can help is by sharing our understanding of the challenges faced by some regions with respect to healthcare, especially in the case of our valued Pacific allies. Additionally, I think it’s fair to say that our implementation of a centralized system has been highly effective, and was made even stronger by post SARS reforms. I’d say that our experience with healthcare is worth sharing, and, of course, our willingness to provide aid to those who need it remains unchanged.

What capabilities does Taiwan have that can assist the WHO in meeting the objectives of the Immunization Agenda 2030?

Taiwan’s experience with the modernization and reform of our own health system has given us important insights into the process of providing mass healthcare in challenging circumstances. Our innovative use of information technology, embedded directly into the administration of basic healthcare, also holds tools and lessons that we believe would be beneficial to many other countries, especially those who are at an early stage in their journey towards comprehensive and universal healthcare.

What processes does Taiwan have in place to be able to share health data with other countries and institutions, despite not being a member of the WHO?

During the COVID pandemic, the whole world saw how Taiwan leaned forward to share our data with the world, not just promptly, but early, and with a very high degree of reliability and coverage. At the moment, we engage in a patchwork of minilateral arrangements, as well as, of course, our current arrangements with our allies and partners. All told, however, it would be by far preferable if we were able to share our data and insights in a more centralized manner, as this would derive significant benefits not just for us, but we believe for the international community as well.