After missiles, germs and viruses?
China is once again confronting the threat of an epidemic. This time around, the disease is enterovirus, which as of Monday had infected 4,500 people in China and killed 22, Chinese state media said. Given Beijing’s track record of hiding the magnitude of epidemics, however, it would not be surprising if the government were once again downplaying the seriousness of the situation.
Meanwhile, 64 cases of serious enterovirus infection — with two deaths — have also been reported in Taiwan this year.
While Centers for Disease Control officials have said that the infections in China and Taiwan were caused by genetically distinct subgenogroups and are therefore unconnected, China’s poor record of reporting disease outbreaks has many in Taiwan concerned that it may only be a matter of time before a sneeze in China represents a threat to Taiwanese.
The nightmare of the 2003 SARS epidemic is still vivid in many people’s mind. Because of criminal neglect by the Chinese government, the outbreak of atypical pneumonia, the first case of which was traced back to Guangdong Province in November 2002, was allowed to spread to Hong Kong, Taiwan and as far as Toronto and the east coast of the US before measures were taken to address the problem.
The SARS outbreak claimed 73 lives in Taiwan — the third-highest death toll after China and Hong Kong. As a direct result of Beijing’s relentless blocking of Taiwan’s application for WHO membership or observer status, Taiwan found itself unable to communicate with WHO officials at the height of the crisis. It took two months before the WHO dispatched health experts to deal with the situation in Taiwan.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time the WHO — which trumpets itself as an international health body that puts global health issues first — had ignored calls by a country in the midst of a health emergency.
In 1998, an outbreak of enterovirus in Taiwan resulted in 80 deaths. Again, because Taiwan was not a member of the WHO, the organization did not respond to Taipei’s call for assistance, which instead came from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Subsequent to that incident, it was determined that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Kinmen had been caused by sick cattle smuggled from China.
By yielding to Beijing’s pressure and barring Taiwan from membership, the WHO has violated not only Taiwanese’s right to medical service, but also created a blind spot in the global disease prevention network.
Given its geographic proximity to China, Taiwan will always be at risk of catching a Chinese cold.
As there is no way Taiwan can change its geographic location, the WHO’s inclusion of Taiwan in the global health network is the one practical and effective alternative in protecting the health of Taiwanese.
But until members of the WHO come to their senses and stand up to Beijing, Taiwanese will continue to be threatened by Beijing’s disregard for human life.