OPINION: Taiwan’s Covid-19 Success Should Inspire Alternatives to the WHO

OPINION: Taiwan’s Covid-19 Success Should Inspire Alternatives to the WHO
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Instead of the WHO, the WMA ought to be considered as a channel for international exchange for Taiwan.

By Kuan-Ting Chen and Alex Garcia

Taiwan’s exceptional track record at maintaining a functioning economy and limiting the spread of the coronavirus has been hailed as a model internationally. This attention is an opportunity for Taiwan to reevaluate its international participation in the fight against Covid-19.

Taiwan’s successes have been thrown into relief by the World Health Organization’s mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. An alternative to the WHO may not seem so far-fetched given the anger and distrust many countries now have towards the organization.

Some officials in the United States, like President Donald Trump, have publicly called for defunding the WHO. Other countries, such as Czechia, have taken a different approach, working directly with Taiwan on issues of technical expertise and protective supplies for medical workers.

Defunding a health organization during a pandemic, as Trump has called for, is dangerous. A better approach would be to keep up pressure for Taiwan’s inclusion in the WHO while also looking at alternative ways of international exchange of knowledge and materials.

One organization that fits the bill is the World Medical Association (WMA). The WMA represents physicians worldwide and is made up of 113 national associations totaling over 10 million physicians. In contrast, the WHO is made up of the government health departments from their member countries. Taiwan is represented in the WMA by the Taiwan Medical Association and has full access to participation. A prominently featured post on the WMA’s “Medical Ethics” page is the “Declaration of Taipei” which establishes ethics around biological data used for research.

Organizations like the WMA show that there are international forums that already exist that do not exclude the 23 million people of Taiwan. Highlighting and supporting organizations like this could be a good use of resources if the goal is to increase Taiwan’s international presence quickly and practically.

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Secretary General of the World Medical Association (WMA), Otmar Kloiber speaks during a panel discussion in support of the Turkish Medical Association's (TTB) central council members. March 19, 2020

There are differences between the WHO and WMA. The mission and structure of the WMA are geared towards physicians and international standards, so there remain limits on government coordination. National physician associations are also meant to advocate for physicians, whereas a national health department tends to prioritize government policy and constraints.

But this physicians-first nature of the WMA may be an advantage, too. As governments balance competing interests, a body of scientist physicians is perhaps best positioned to advocate for public health without state or business interference.

Since many physicians already participate in this forum, it can be an effective way to share Taiwan’s expertise with medical workers around the world who are actively working in hospitals treating Covid-19 patients. For advice on the government level policies, Taiwan has been in direct communication with many countries trying to assist in their research and decision making efforts. After benefiting from Taiwan's help, many countries will not want to go back to the status quo of Taiwan being sidelined internationally.

There has been some domestic criticism of Taiwan’s bids for greater international participation. Perhaps it’s out of fear that this distracts from the local response. But there are crucial benefits to continuing this outward-facing approach. The biggest benefit of all is that Taiwan is a trade-oriented country whose own economy depends on the speedy recovery of the world economy. The donations now may lead to goodwill later on that more than makes up for the relatively small sacrifices.

While this pandemic is an enormous challenge, Taiwan has more to gain by increasing its international presence than by focusing inwards. Emphasizing the WMA as an alternative to the WHO is an idea that deserves consideration.

Kuan-Ting Chen holds a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Tokyo. He was a visiting scholar at Japan's National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, staff associate at the National Security Council, and currently works in municipal government.

Alex Garcia holds a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Wesleyan University and is the Principal at Taipei Urbanism.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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