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OPINION

Excluding Taiwan from the WHO is a political and medical outrage

With the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic approaching 40,000 and climbing steeply, Taiwan’s involvement in the world’s foremost public health agency ought to be a no-brainer.

People wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 31.
People wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 31.Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday endorsed observer status for Taiwan at the World Health Organization, pledging that he and the State Department will “do our best” to advocate Taiwan’s participation in WHO meetings. With the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic approaching 40,000 and climbing steeply, Taiwan’s involvement in the world’s foremost public health agency ought to be a no-brainer — not just because the island is home to 24 million people but also because it was one of the first to confront the new disease and has been highly successful in fighting it.

But Taiwan doesn’t participate in the WHO. Virtually every country on earth is a member — some, like Nauru and Tuvalu, so tiny that their entire populations wouldn’t fill half the seats in Fenway Park. Yet one of Asia’s most important population centers, a vibrant trading hub with a world-class health care system, is excluded, blackballed by China. The regime in Beijing insists that Taiwan is not a true country but merely a renegade Chinese province not entitled to membership in any international organization. In recent years, Beijing has demanded that Taiwan be denied even nonvoting status in the WHO.

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The claim that Taiwan is part of China is ridiculous on its face. Yet so aggressive is Beijing in asserting that Taiwan not be treated as a legitimate nation that most of the world’s governments choose not to press the issue. International bodies go along with the “one China” fiction, treating Taiwan and its people with profound disrespect. It’s a shameful situation in the best of times. Amid a global pandemic, it’s reckless.

The WHO has come in for serious criticism of how it has handled the coronavirus threat, in particular for being so deferential to the Chinese government. As Beijing was suppressing information about the outbreak in Wuhan and punishing doctors who tried to raise an alarm, the WHO was ostentatiously praising China for its “openness to sharing information” and downplaying the danger from the virus. By reacting so obsequiously, writes Michael Collins of the Council on Foreign Relations, the organization in effect “laundered China’s image at the expense of the WHO’s credibility.”

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Taiwanese health officials, by contrast, alerted the WHO to the danger of the new virus as far back as December, but the organization declined to convey the information to other countries. At the same time, the WHO has refused to share with Taiwan the material it supplies to its members, forcing Taiwan to wait days or weeks to access relevant information.

To make matters worse, the WHO — adhering to the “one China” fatuity — is pooling Taiwan’s coronavirus numbers with China’s, which has the effect of wildly overstating the scale of the pandemic on the island. In reality, Taiwan — which treated the threat with deadly seriousness from the outset — has met with (so far) considerable success: As of Tuesday, it had 322 confirmed infections and 5 deaths.

The extent to which China’s anti-Taiwan bias has infected the WHO was made even more apparent in a TV interview last weekend. Hong Kong journalist Yvonne Tong, speaking by video with WHO senior adviser Bruce Aylward, asked whether the organization would reconsider membership for Taiwan. He stared back, saying nothing. When she offered to repeat the question, he asked her to change the subject. When she pressed him to answer her question, he broke the connection. Tong called back and asked Aylward to comment on Taiwan’s success at containing the virus. “We’ve already talked about China,” he replied.

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This crisis has awakened second thoughts about the world’s relations with China. Its treatment of Taiwan is one thing that cannot continue. There is no excuse for denying one of Asia’s freest and most advanced nations a seat at the table in every global forum.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced Taiwan’s importance as a responsible partner in protecting global health, even as it has intensified skepticism of China’s competence and integrity. For the World (World!) Health Organization to pretend a nation of 24 million doesn’t exist is a moral outrage and a menace to public health. If Nauru and Tuvalu are entitled to full WHO membership, Taiwan is too. China’s blackball has done enough harm. America and its allies should refuse to honor it any longer.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.