Shut out of WHO, Taiwan faces flight bans, delays in virus updates

TAIPEI (Reuters) - Shut out of the World Health Organization, Taiwan faces a dual problem in battling the threat of a new coronavirus: it is being included as a high-risk area as part of China but is unable to get epidemic information firsthand.

FILE PHOTO: Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a news conference on the coronavirus outbreak, in Taipei, Taiwan January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Fabian Hamacher

Taiwan is denied membership of most international bodies including the WHO, a U.N. agency, due to the objections of China, which considers the island a Chinese province with no right to participate unless it accepts it is part of China, something Taiwan’s fiercely democratic government will not do.

Taiwan has long complained about China belittling it on the international stage and forcing foreign governments and companies to refer to it as part of China.

Now, with the virus biting, Taiwan says this policy means it has become collateral damage. It has only 10 coronavirus cases compared with more than 17,000 in China, but the WHO is lumping it together with China.

The consequences surfaced at the weekend when Taiwan said its largest airline, China Airlines 2610.TW, had been included in an Italian ban on flights from China because the WHO lists Taiwan under China, where the virus originated, as part of a high-risk area.

Bob Chen, the head of the Taiwan foreign ministry’s Department of International Organisations, said it had complained repeatedly to the WHO.

“But to date, the WHO’s secretariat’s attitude has been very hard-line,” he said on Sunday. “It’s very obvious that under China’s pressure they can’t show flexibility.”

However, the WHO, while still listing Taiwan as part of China, now refers to it as “Taipei”, rather than “Taiwan, China” as it did in initial situation reports, Chen said.

“It’s a small change, but from our perspective it’s still far from enough. The biggest problem is they are still putting us under China.”

In a rare diplomatic success, Taiwan managed on Saturday to get Vietnam to lift its ban on flights to the island. China Airlines says its Rome flights remain suspended as Taiwan pressed Italy for them to be resumed.

Taiwan's other main airline, Eva Airways 2618.TW, which is due to start flights to Milan this month, said it had no information whether they would go ahead.

Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan’s diplomats were working to ensure more countries do not stop flights from Taiwan.

Italy’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.


China has denied seeking to make life difficult for Taiwan, saying it can get information from the WHO in a timely way.

“Taiwan compatriots are our own flesh and blood, and if they encounter difficulties overseas, we are willing to provide strong support,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Monday, responding to a question on Italy’s flight ban.

But the WHO is for sovereign states and Taiwan can only take part under the “one China” principle, she added.

Procedures need to be changed as existing WHO channels provide only limited information, said Wang Liang-yu, Taiwan’s de facto ambassador in Geneva, where the WHO is based.

“The WHO should not hint that bilateral channels are enough to replace international cooperation,” she told Reuters.

The WHO says it is collaborating closely with Taiwan through a 2005 legal instrument on health reporting requirements, the International Health Regulations.

Taiwan experts were involved in all consultations on the coronavirus and the WHO “had received vital information from Taiwanese authorities”, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an email to Reuters, without directly addressing the issue of Taiwan being listed as part of China.

Taiwan can’t go to the emergency WHO meetings but has still been able to get coronavirus information, though has to wait for it to show up on WHO websites, said Chuang Jen-hsiang, deputy head of its Centres for Disease Control.

“There is a time gap, but we can see it,” he said.

Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee, and Se Young Lee and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Emma Farge in Geneva and Gavin Jones in Rome; Editing by Robert Birsel, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie