WHO’s praise for China’s response has led critics to question the relationship between the two entities. The United Nations agency relied on member funding and cooperation to function, giving wealthy member states like China significant influence. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of China’s dominance over the WHO is its success in blocking Taiwan’s access to the organism, a position that could have very real consequences for the people of Taiwan if the virus seized it there.
WHO’s stance towards China has also renewed a longstanding debate that WHO, founded 72 years ago, is independent enough to enable it to achieve its goal.
“I know there is a lot of pressure on the WHO when we appreciate what China is doing, but because of the pressure we should not fail to tell the truth,” said the WHO director. “We don’t say anything to appease anyone. It’s because it’s the truth.”
Tedros added that “we are giving qualified recognition and in reality my call is please recognize as a world, as a globe what China is doing and help them and show solidarity”.
Mixing health and politics
“WHO is both a technical agency and a decision-making body,” wrote Clift. “Excessive intrusion of political considerations into his technical work can damage his authority and credibility as a standard-bearer of health.”
This means that WHO is only informed as its Member States want. If a country where an epidemic is developing does not share the data, the WHO can do little about it.
With a government like China, with a historical aversion to transparency and sensitivity to international criticism, this can be a problem.
Taiwan in the dark
It is on the Taiwan issue that Beijing’s political swing to the WHO is clearer.
“There simply is no basic principle that Taiwan should not be here … the only reason it is not here now is because the Beijing government does not like the current Taiwanese government,” said Browne.
Despite Browne’s speech and the intervention of several other member states, from Belize and Haiti in the Caribbean to the African kingdom of Eswatini and the small Pacific nation of Nauru, the proposal to include Taiwan was quickly canceled from the agenda, as it has been every year since 2016.
Excluding Beijing Island from international organizations usually has no global consequences. Health is an area, however, where an effective international response requires that all governments are equally connected and informed.
“Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO makes its population vulnerable during this crisis – the lack of direct and timely channels to the WHO has already led to inaccurate case reports in Taiwan,” said China expert Natasha Kassam, Taiwan and diplomacy from Lowy Institute in Australia. “The Taiwanese authorities have complained about the lack of access to WHO data and assistance.”
The issue has global implications: Kassam stressed that around 50 million foreign travelers pass through Taiwan’s largest airport each year, “with the expectation that Taiwan will receive advice from the WHO on any public health problem.”
“Taiwan’s health care system has consistently been ranked as one of the best in the world – and at a time like this, every country should put policy aside to focus on containing the virus,” said Kassam.
When he approached the WHA last year, Browne predicted just this kind of confusion, saying “we all know that the PRC does not exercise control and authority over Taiwan and cannot reasonably be expected to represent him here.”
Trapped in the middle
Indeed, if Tedros had done so, there would probably have been a number of articles criticizing the WHO for needlessly offending China in a time of crisis and hampering its ability to operate.
Thomas Abraham, associate professor at the Center for Journalism and Studies on the University of Hong Kong and former WHO consultant, sums it up well: “WHO, and also China, is damned if you do it, damn if you are not. ”