Coronavirus: An Appeal for Greater International Inclusion in the World Health Organization.

As countries grapple to control the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) is in constant support of their efforts. However, some states, such as Taiwan, unrightfully receive little to no assistance from the WHO. This issue sheds light on other states that have missed out entirely and raises the question whether its governance structure during times of crisis should be revised or not. 

The Republic of China (ROC), colloquially known as Taiwan, is only recognised by 14 UN member countries. And that is despite the state having a population of 23 million and being the 22nd largest global economy. This is because, in 1971, the UN seat for China was transitioned from the ROC government to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had by then become more influential. Taiwan, now a flourishing democracy of 23 million, has managed to largely bypass its handicap by establishing unofficial relations with many industrial nations. Therefore, it seldomly pushes for change, given, on the one hand, its futility, and, on the other hand, its comfortable economic position.

However, a disturbing aspect of Taiwan’s lack of recognition in the world that should be discussed is its exclusion from a range of international organisations. In light of the current coronavirus pandemic, for example, the ROC’s absence from the WHO and its professional advice shows how dangerous it can be to not communicate properly in times of emergency. From the ROC’s point of view, receiving little to no official information – which is more precise than the media – can obstruct an adequate response to incoming cases. From an international perspective, lack of clarity as to the situation in Taiwan means that it may receive less medical and financial assistance from abroad in a time of crisis. This time Taiwan, the number of infections currently around 300 (March 30), may have become lucky. But imagine Taiwan being in a situation similar to Italy or Spain; most countries, except maybe the US, would think twice before helping the island state, fearing disappointment and retaliation from China.

These circumstances demonstrate that the United Nations should fundamentally rethink the governance and structure of its most crucial agencies. UN membership is, for most UN specialised agencies, an admission criteria, explaining why only few non UN-member states are represented in these agencies. In theory, nothing much has to change within the UN itself to achieve greater international inclusiveness, as its primary purpose provides a platform for interaction and negotiation for all states. However, its admissions policy that for a state to be admitted to the UN (and agencies such as the WHO), the five permanent members of the Security Council must be unanimous, proves troublesome to some states. This is also the main barricade Taiwan faces, as the PRC is able to veto any attempt. In a recent interview by a Hong Kong broadcaster, a WHO official avoided questions regarding the Taiwanese response to the virus and potential membership. Although China faces international criticism with regard to its response, the official praised the Chinese government, which further demonstrates Beijing’s tight grip on the organisation.

While it would prove difficult to change the setup of the UN and its Security Council, perhaps the coronavirus pandemic can teach world leaders some lessons in flexible governance. For example, when a global health threat does suddenly arise, a different modus operandi to the usual can be initiated where every state is granted temporary membership (or observer status) in the WHO so the pandemic can be contained efficiently. Although such flexible policies would be tough to implement and some influential states will be less inclined to accept these amendments, governments should have realised by now that, in times of emergency, adaptability is key. Even China, inclined to silence Taiwan’s voice in the world, should have more important matters than geopolitics to worry about in times of emergency, when the economy is in trouble and the healthcare system is overloaded. If it nevertheless wished to use the situation to its advantage, it could do so with soft power, by, for instance, providing support with medical staff and equipment.

To summarise, the coronavirus has highlighted the weak spots in structures of UN agencies, foremost the WHO. Tasked with aiding governments in responding properly to catastrophes, the agency cannot fulfill its duties properly if it cannot reach out to all political leaders across the world. A solution could be to transform its governance structure whenever a global health threat arises, temporarily including non-member states in order to efficiently coordinate an international response. A healthy population and economy should be the primary concern of most governments in disastrous situations, meaning that even the most powerful – China, Russia, US, etc. – should be able to set aside their geopolitical interests for some time.


Cover picture retrieved from Unsplash :