By Barnini Chakraborty
Published March 24, 2020
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Taiwan is the latest country to accuse the World Health Organization of bending to Chinese pressure and says if the global body had listened to them, the novel coronavirus sweeping across the world could have been contained by now.
As of Tuesday morning, there have been 387,382 confirmed cases of COVID-19 -- a 12 percent increase from the day before. The United States saw a 31.9 percent jump in cases to 46,450 and is on track to eclipse China's number of 81,588.
Health officials in Taipei said they alerted the WHO at the end of December about the risk of human-to-human transmission but says its concerns and warnings were not passed on to other countries that could have benefited from it.
Taiwan claimed its doctors had heard from their mainland China colleagues that medical staff treating patients were getting sick -- an obvious sign that person-to-person transmissions were taking place, the Financial Times reported. Taipei officials said they reported their fears to Chinese health authorities as well as to the International Health Regulations, a World Health Organization outfit that was created to allow countries to work together during health emergencies, but that their information fell on deaf ears.
"While the IHR's internal website provides a platform for all countries to share information on the epidemic and their response, none of the information shared by our country's (Centers for Disease Control) is being put up there," Taiwan's Vice President Chen Chien-ien said.
What's worse is that because the WHO could not obtain first-hand information to study and judge the potential severity of the novel coronavirus, it was slow to sound the alarm, Chen said.
China only confirmed person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 on January 20, after the WHO said in mid-January that there might be "limited" cases of transmission.
Listening to Taiwan's early warnings could have saved hundreds of thousands of people from getting the deadly disease.
The problem, some say, is the relationship between the WHO and China.
China has dictated and put pressure on the WHO to play down the numbers. Bizarrely, in return, China has been showered with accolades from the global organization for its efforts to contain and control the coronavirus - something that has critics seeing red.
Instead of wasting time praising China, critics say the WHO should have taken Taiwan's warnings seriously.
Seventeen years ago, Taiwan learned some lessons during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak. More than 800 of its citizens died and its economy took a hit. Since then, Taiwan has prepared itself in case anything similar were to happen again.
"Learning from the experiences of SARS in 2003, Taiwan was ready when the outbreak in Wuhan occurred," Anders Rasmussen, the former NATO secretary-general and Danish prime minister, recently wrote in an opinion piece. "After the first notifications at the end of 2019, Taipei swiftly adopted a combination of measures to identify and contain the virus, including the use of big data to help contain potential cases."
Of Taiwan's 23 million citizens, 850,000 reside in mainland China; 400,000 work there and at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is just 80 miles. With those statistics, COVID-19 should be wreaking havoc in Taiwan. It has not.
Rasmussen believes countries around the world could have taken notes from Taiwan's experiences, but that China's petty play to keep Taiwan down has had crippling consequences for the rest of the world.
In recent years, Taiwan's "world-class health specialists have been shut out in the cold by Beijing's geopolitical obsessions," Rasmussen said. "In 2016, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-Wen came to power with a mandate to assert her people's autonomy. China did not take kindly to this democratic challenge to its 'One China' policy and bullies the world's multilateral institutions into dealing only with Beijing."
As a result, Taipei has been denied access to a number of "international fora" which it was previously able to attend as an observer, Rasmussen said.
China's critics believe if Beijing would have set its ego aside, Taiwan could have been on the front lines helping fight COVID-19, and the numbers of those infected around the world would have been dramatically lower.