It is hardly surprising that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is on the defensive. He is taking hits from all angles — the most recent and high-profile example is a broadside from US President Donald Trump, who attacked Tedros’ organization for moving too slowly and being “China-centric.” (Remarkably, in this case, there was merit to two Trump utterances in short succession.)
Being targeted by Trump is a badge of pride in some quarters and, here too, that might have been the case were it the only source of disdain aimed at the WHO. Instead, Tedros has received sustained criticism from the minute the COVID-19 outbreak went public, precisely because — by common consensus — going public took the WHO far too long.
Some of the strongest censure has come from the health authorities in Taiwan. Given the decades of sidelining and unconscionable treatment the nation has received from the organization at China’s behest, this is understandable.
Of course, this started long before Tedros’ tenure. Retracing the steps down the entire hall of shame is too time-consuming; instead a detour into some of the grubbier side-chambers would suffice.
In 1998, an enterovirus outbreak caused severe infections in more than 400 people, killing 78 (91 percent of whom were children under the age of five). Taiwanese officials cited WHO inaction as critical in preventing timely international cooperation.
Five years later, during the SARS outbreak of 2002 to 2004, Taiwan was forced to wait 50 days for the WHO to answer a request for assistance. When the organization’s experts did show up, it was revealed that they had come in an observational capacity only, having received instructions to refrain from assisting.
With 73 deaths from 346 infections, the epidemic had a 21.1 percent mortality rate (a still shocking 10.7 percent if people with underlying conditions are discounted). When it transpired that China had tried to keep a lid on things, Taiwan was faced with the reality of being on the front line with a gravely irresponsible neighbor.
It was wake-up call, and as a direct result of the SARS experience, the National Health Command Center was established in 2004. This centralized, rapid-response mechanism has been highlighted as a key component of Taiwan’s success in news reports on its approach.
Therefore, Taiwan is well aware that — when moving quickly could be the difference between containment and disaster — Beijing and the WHO cannot be trusted to act in its interests; nor, it now appears, in the interests of anyone, where those interests clash with China’s prerogatives.
Yet, if Tedros is just the latest in a long line of China’s lackeys, he and his subordinates have certainly plumbed new depths in their kowtowing.
In response to the SARS epidemic, Tedros’ predecessor Gro Harlem Brundtland became the first director-general to issue an advisory for a specific region, with the WHO warning against travel to the disease epicenter in southern China in April 2003.
Brundtland even publicly alluded to Beijing’s lack of transparency and failure to allow the WHO access to the area until five months after Chinese officials had first detected the outbreak.
Contrast this with Tedros’ fawning praise for China, including — most ludicrously — Beijing’s supposed “openness to sharing information.”
Tensions have been further stoked by WHO Assistant Director-General Bruce Aylward’s now notorious video interview with Radio Television Hong Kong, in which he ducked questions about Taiwan and appeared to hang up mid-interview.
When accusations that the WHO ignored Taipei’s warnings about human-to-human transmissions in late December last year are added to the rap sheet — claims that, despite repeated obfuscations and doublespeak, the WHO has yet to refute — the Taiwanese decision to go public seems positively righteous.
With Taiwan leading the charge, it is hardly surprising that this is where Tedros has focused his retaliation. Where better to divert attention than to a place that nobody cares about, a nation that the WHO says is not a country — a ghost island whose feeble laments Tedros presumably thinks would not be audible from the international wilderness to which it has been consigned?
However, Taiwan has stood its ground, and — as its handling of the pandemic garners praise in almost inverse proportion to Beijing’s response — there are signs that the voice of this thriving democracy is finally being heard.
For this reason, it is important that the reaction to Tedros’ accusations of racism in his press conference on Wednesday last week remain measured and mature.
For the most part, this has been the case.
“We do not condone the use of racist remarks to attack those with different opinions,” President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) said in a statement.
So far, so good. Tsai also “strongly protested” the claims that “Taiwan is instigating racist attacks,” and this is where things get a little thorny.
Tedros did not directly say that Taipei had “instigated” the attacks that he alleges he has received; rather, he cryptically referred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs being aware of a campaign of abuse and slurs, from which it failed to “dissociate themselves.”
There is certainly an implication of complicity here, and Taiwanese — officials or the public — are justified in interpreting his words this way.
It is hard to see how Tedros could know whether the Taiwanese authorities were aware of any such campaign, let alone whether they had taken steps to intervene. To the degree that the alleged actions were coordinated or organized, it would mean assuming that the individuals involved had gained access to his personal contact details.
Much more likely is that these oblique references are to the kind of abuse that takes place in locations where, unlike their Chinese counterparts, the Taiwanese authorities do not maintain a censorial presence: online.
Indeed, a quick peek at the discussion forums of the Professional Technology Temple bulletin board system, commonly known as PTT and the largest such Web site in Taiwan, provides an idea of the kind of muck that is being hurled.
With this in mind, the remark that, “the Taiwanese people do not differentiate by skin color or language,” which also features in Tsai’s response, is an odd one.
Versions of this claim have flooded social media since the WHO statement, with some of them verging on the absurd and demonstrating an incredible lack of self-awareness.
In a YouTube video comprising an open letter to Tedros, a UK-based medical student called Vivi Lin (林薇) said that Taiwanese “are known for the appreciation of diversity.” This would be news to many.
Racism exists everywhere. While in Taiwan it generally stems from ignorance rather than malice or hatred, and rarely leads to violence of the type encountered in other parts of the world, pretending it is not an issue makes no sense.
Look no further than the treatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers to witness discriminatory behavior, all too often culminating in shocking abuses. Attitudes toward people of African descent also often leave a lot to be desired.
Taiwan is right to challenge Tedros for playing the race card. However, in doing so, officials and citizens should eschew untenable claims and simply call this what it is: a smokescreen designed to draw flak from a beleaguered leader and the increasingly tarnished organization he fronts.
James Baron is a freelance writer and journalist based in Taipei.
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