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Shut out of WHO, Taiwan faces flight bans, update delays in virus crisis

Shut out of the World Health Organization, Taiwan is facing a dual problem in tackling the threat of a new coronavirus: it is being included as a high-risk area as part of China but is unable to get epidemic information firsthand.

Taiwan is denied membership of most international organizations including the WHO, a U.N. agency, due to the objections of China, which considers it a Chinese province with no right to participate unless it accepts it is part of China, something Taiwan’s government will not do.

Taiwan has long complained about China’s belittling of it on the international stage and its forcing of foreign governments and companies to refer to it as part of China.

Now, with the virus biting, Taiwan says this policy means it has become collateral damage, as despite having only 10 cases compared with more than 17,000 in China, where the virus emerged in December, the WHO is lumping Taiwan’s cases together with China’s.

The consequences of that became evident on the weekend when the government said Taiwan’s largest airline, China Airlines, had been included in an Italian ban on flights from China because the WHO lists Taiwan under China as part of a high-risk virus area.

Bob Chen, the head of the Taiwan foreign ministry’s Department of International Organisations, said they had complained repeatedly to the WHO to stop listing Taiwan as part of China.

“But to date, the WHO’s secretariat’s attitude has been very hardline. It’s very obvious that under China’s pressure they can’t show flexibility,” he said on Feb. 2.

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However, the WHO, while still listing Taiwan as part of China, is now referring to it as “Taipei”, rather than “Taiwan, China” as it did in its initial situation reports, Chen said.

“It’s a small change, but from our perspective it’s still far from enough. The biggest problem is they are still putting us under China.”

In a rare diplomatic success for Taiwan, it managed on Feb. 1 to get Vietnam to lift its ban on flights to the island, which it had also initially listed under China.

China Airlines says its Rome flights remain suspended as Taiwan pressed Italy for them to be resumed.

Taiwan’s other main airline, Eva Airways, is due to start flights to Milan this month. It said it had no information on whether they would go ahead.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the island’s diplomats around the world were working to ensure more countries do not stop flights from Taiwan.

The WHO’s office in Beijing and Italy’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mask-clad commuters get off a train at a Mass Rapid Transit stop in Taipei following the Lunar New Year holidays on Jan. 30. (Photo by Am Yeh/AFP)

‘Limited’ information

China has denied seeking to make life difficult for Taiwan during this outbreak, with the government saying it has ensured Taiwan is kept informed and “nobody cares more” about Taiwan’s people than Beijing’s government.

Wang Liang-yu, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Geneva where the WHO is based, told Reuters the procedures needed to be changed as existing WHO channels provided only “limited” information.

“The WHO should not hint that bilateral channels are enough to replace international cooperation,” she said.

The WHO says it is collaborating closely with Taiwan authorities through International Health Regulations (IHR) mechanisms in response to the outbreak, referring to a 2005 legal instrument governing health reporting requirements.

“WHO works with Taiwanese health officials, following established procedures, to facilitate fast and effective response, including through the IHR,” said spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, adding that Taiwan officials had been invited to attend WHO technical meetings last year.

Taiwan Centers for Disease Control deputy head Chuang Jen-hsiang said the island can get coronavirus information but it has to wait for information to appear on WHO websites, meaning they don’t immediately get access to it.

“There is a time gap, but we can see it,” he said.

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