Cardinal Joseph Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has raised questions about the independence of the World Health Organization after a senior WHO official refused to take questions on Taiwan’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a video interview last week with Hong Kong broadcaster RTHK, Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s lead advisor to China, declined to comment on Taiwan’s Covid-19 measures and its current lack of WHO member status. At one point, Dr Aylward even appeared to hang up on his interviewer, Yvonne Tong, in response to the line of questioning. When the reporter called Aylward back to allow him to speak about the situation in Taiwan, the Canadian epidemiologist praised public health efforts “across all the different areas of China” but made no mention of Taiwan.
Taiwan wishes to be considered an independent sovereign state, a status rejected by the People’s Republic of China, which considers it a “renegade province” of China. Consequently, China has demanded that international organizations such as the UN and WHO dismiss Taiwan’s requests for membership, and it has withheld diplomatic relations from the 14 countries that still officially recognise Taiwan. Sino-Vatican relations have been centred exclusively in Taiwan ever since the Chinese Communist regime banished the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in 1951. The Holy See’s 2018 “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government has been interpreted as a potential “prelude” to a breaking of ties with Taiwan.
Cardinal Zen has been a prominent critic of the Chinese government and its 2018 agreement with the Vatican. On Twitter, he criticised the WHO official for shying away from such questioning and said that it made trust in the organization impossible.
Aylward, the so-called expert of the WHO, pathetically shy away from answering the question about Taiwan’s membership and performance, twice, by pretending not to hear the reporter and cutting the call. How possible we can trust WHO.https://t.co/m3SIemd4QB
— Joseph Zen (@CardJosephZen) March 30, 2020
The controversy over the interview comes amid mounting criticism of the WHO’s relationship with China. The organization praised China’s “speed in identifying the virus and openness to sharing information”. However, Professor John Mackenzie, a WHO expert from Curtin University in Australia, branded the country’s early response as “reprehensible”.
China’s efforts to build links with the current WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, through speaking invitations and increased WHO contributions, have caused concern amongst some health experts. This has coincided with the WHO’s renewed support for the “one-China principle”, which rejects Taiwanese independence, and a shift away from the critical stance toward China that the WHO has adopted in the past.
In the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, the then Director-General, Gro Harlem Brundtland, condemned China’s slow response and lack of transparency, and begged that the “next time something strange and new comes anywhere in the world let us come in as quickly as possible”. Even during the SARS epidemic, however, the WHO was criticised for having “shut out” Taiwan from its scientific investigations. Taiwan was later granted temporary observer status between 2008 and 2016 under the name “Chinese Taipei”.
The current WHO leadership has offered no such invitation, which has limited Taiwan’s access to shared scientific data. The Taiwanese authorities have subsequently reiterated their criticisms of the WHO’s “unreasonable restrictions” on information sharing during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, Taiwan has itself received widespread scientific support for its current handling of the crisis, with just 339 recorded cases of the virus and 5 deaths to date as a result of the firm public health measures overseen by Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, a prominent Catholic epidemiologist.
The World Health Organization issued a statement in response to the controversy, stating that they had been working with Taiwanese health experts to facilitate an effective response to the outbreak there and insisting that “Taiwanese membership in WHO is up to WHO Member States, not WHO.”
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