Whether Taiwan's World Health Organization (WHO) application is a health imperative or a political maneuver was the question of the day during the World Health Assembly's (WHA) meeting on Monday.
"Those with Jesus in their hearts will see Jesus. Those with Buddha in their hearts see Buddha. Those with cow feces see cow feces. All China sees in this is politics, failing to see justice and compassion," Department of Health Director-General Chen Chien-jen (
At the same time, the Chinese delegation to the WHA accused Taiwan of using observership status at the WHO as a means to bring about diplomatic ends.
China had made clear from the start how it would view international support of Taiwan's bid: "As for those few nations who keep bringing up Taiwan's application, China views this as a challenge to the `one China' policy," the leader of the Chinese delegation, Minister of Health Gao Qiang (高強), said in a speech to the assembly on Monday.
"The Taiwan problem is an internal affair that needs to be decided by the Chinese people. No nation, big or small, rich or poor, can interfere with that," Gao said.
Indeed, the only nations to vote for Taiwan despite a lack of diplomatic ties were the US and Japan.
Following the vote, Japan issued a statement explaining its decision: "In view of the universality of the WHO as an international organization, it is the view of the Japanese government that it is desirable that as many countries, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and other [entities] take part in the work of the WHO."
Japan also cited its close geographical proximity to Taiwan and consequent vulnerability to infectious diseases in China and Taiwan as a reason for its support for Taiwan in the WHO.
By the same token, of the nations that had voted to keep Taiwan off the agenda, only the EU, represented by the Irish delegation, and Canada delivered speeches to explain their vote.
The speeches of the Irish and Canadian delegations were interpreted by Taiwanese officials as expressions of goodwill towards Taiwan, despite the `one China' policy that had ultimately decided the vote.
"For those countries that voted against Taiwan today, I can understand their predicament as they had to choose sides under the so-called `one China' policy," Chen said yesterday.
"For those who voted for Taiwan, I affirm their courage, and express gratitude," he added.
In addition to political and health considerations, the right to health, and consequently Taiwan's application, was also cast within a moral framework, with Taiwanese officials saying on more than one occasion: "Justice is on our side."
Furthermore, calling Taiwan's situation a case of "health apart-heid" has no doubt served to stir the international conscience.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Michael Kau (高英茂) went so far as to say that the US and Japanese vote to include Taiwan on the agenda carried "a lot of moral authority" in light of the two nations' monetary contributions to the WHO.
The WHA president, Pakistani Federal Minister for Health M.N. Khan, offered what he referred to as "some food for thought" at the conclusion of the three-hour-long debate on Taiwan's application.
"This is the eighth running year this has been going on. Some 170 countries from all over the world have gathered here, and the whole precious day has passed. It is almost nightfall, and the World Health Organization has not touched on one single health issue," Khan said.
But does the health of Taiwan's 23 million people constitute a health issue and to whom should this question be posed?
As Chad's delegate pointed out on Monday, "We have only to decide if the question is worth discussing or not."
Indeed, the three hours of debate on the assembly floor were technically for or against the "General Committee's recommendation to not include this item [Taiwan's application] on the agenda."
Perhaps one would be just as well off asking whether malaria, road safety, tobacco control, HIV-AIDS, and other current WHO initiatives constitute global health issues worth discussing.
It is worthwhile to consider whether these issues, along with the inclusion of Taiwan in the WHO, are crucial to the health body's constitutional goal of "health for all."
In addition, the decision to either include or exclude Taiwan on the agenda is as much about whether Taiwan is a "health issue" as it is about whether Taiwan has a say in defining world health.
Kau's stance on the issue is clear: "If the WHO continues to turn a blind eye and say, `We don't see 23 million people,' then the WHO is sick," Kau said.
While both China and Taiwan are guilty of finger-pointing, accusing each other of gift-wrapping politics in health on Monday, what became apparent during the health summit is that politics and health cannot be separated.
The WHA is an organization entrusted with the politics of health, the negotiation and shaping of the meaning of health and the allocation of the resources that make it possible.
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