Taiwan has been a beacon of hope amid the global coronavirus pandemic. It has been over 100 days since any local cases have been reported, and in total, Taiwan has only logged 440 covid-19 patients with 7 deaths. Daily life is fairly normal, and most residents do not fear becoming infected. As a result, countries around the world have looked to Taiwan for advice on handling the crisis, spotlighting Taiwan’s success on the global stage. Yet Taiwan has been unable to share its knowledge and best practices formally through the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has led the global effort to overcome the pandemic.
While Taiwan held observer status at the WHO until 2016, due to pressure from China, it was blocked from attending WHO meetings after President Tsai was elected for her first term. Taiwan was one of the earliest to begin fighting the coronavirus, after learning on social media about a mysterious new illness in Wuhan. When its health officials emailed the WHO, however, the WHO refuted Taiwan and stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. This email has been taken as strong evidence that the WHO has been complicit in China’s initial denial of the severity of the pandemic.
Since China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, the World Health Organisation even groups Taiwan’s coronavirus cases with that of China. Some Taiwanese argue that this grouping is unrepresentative of reality and even dangerous, given the public health needs of having accurate reporting of the pandemic. Furthermore, in a well-publicized meeting, a journalist asked a senior representative of the World Health Organisation about Taiwan and was ignored repeatedly. He finally commented, “We’ve already talked about China” and then hung up.
We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked the Taiwanese public their views on the WHO and international recognition more broadly. We found that roughly half (47%) of our respondents hold an unfavourable view of the WHO. A further 28% are ambivalent, with only 20% holding a favourable view.
This low approval rating is consistent across political lines. Among Tsai Ing-wen supporters, a majority, 57%, have an unfavourable view, with 19% feeling ambivalent. Interestingly, 40% of voters for Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang feel negatively towards the WHO, while more (37%) have neither a favourable nor unfavourable view.
The public’s unfavourable view of the WHO extends further into outright distrust. Nearly half (45%) are unlikely to trust the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Again, these feelings are stronger among Tsai supporters, where 56% are unlikely to trust the WHO, compared to 36% of Han supporters. Han supporters tend to feel more ambivalent about the WHO, with over a third (35%) equally as likely as unlikely to trust the WHO’s findings, in contrast to 27% of Tsai supports who say the same.
Taiwan’s highly publicized conflict with the WHO has clearly led the public to believe that the organisation, rather than following through on its commitment to global health, is influenced by political pressure from China.
Altogether, despite Taiwan’s challenges with the WHO, we nevertheless found that a strong majority, 63%, feel that Taiwan has gained the international recognition it deserves for its handling of the pandemic. Positive media coverage of Taiwan’s coronavirus response and global concern about China’s role in the WHO has encouraged appropriate recognition for Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus.
This global recognition is, in part, apparent in that, beyond Taiwan, the WHO’s perceived mishandling of the pandemic has also lowered the organisation’s stature in international affairs. United States President Donald Trump has stated that he plans to withdraw the United States from the WHO due to its handling of the virus and its political bias towards China. Taiwan’s extraordinarily successful management of the pandemic on its own, without support, also has indicated to many that not relying on the WHO, which had initially advised against wearing masks and against closing borders, may be a far wiser decision.