Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Thinking for an old world

In its rejection e-mail, a certain Canadian newspaper (hint: it is a pro-business, right-of-center publication) to which I had submitted a piece on Taiwan’s renewed bid to join the World Health Organization (WHO) was very revealing of how it sees things.

Taiwan’s application, the newspaper informed me, is a “stale issue,” nothing more than an indirect attempt by the “island” to obtain “some form of independence.” Debatable, but not impossible.

The really telling part in the editor’s answer, however, was that surely, in time of crisis, Taiwan could rely on the US and its Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for assistance, ergo, no need for WHO membership.

Aside from the fact that this response indirectly makes a case for China not being able to represent Taiwan on health issues (which it claims it should), it is indicative of a flawed understanding of international health in the 21st century. Before instantaneous international travel, the International Health Regulations (IHR), the WHO’s guiding principles, focused on eradicating known diseases and were, for the most part, sufficient. But as the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 clearly showed, times have changed and fixing a problem once it has emerged is often far too late. The revised IHR — revised in the wake of the SARS outbreak — now emphasize monitoring and prevention so that outbreaks like SARS or H5N1 (avian flu) can be identified and kept endemic before they turn into a pandemic. By the time the CDC arrived in Taiwan to “give assistance,” it would probably be too late and the disease would likely have spread to other countries.

There is nothing stale about Taiwan’s application to become a full participant in the WHO. It seeks to participate because it realizes the world cannot afford to have blind spots. While I have yet to fully study the issue, it is very likely that Taiwan’s efforts at combating its SARS outbreak in 2003 (in which 73 people died) were mitigated by the fact that it could not immediately tap into WHO resources. (Taiwanese officials posit that Beijing used politics to delay the dispatch of WHO medical specialists to Taiwan during the outbreak.)

The only stale thing is the archaic belief that reacting to a problem after it has emerged is sufficient. Stale, and dangerous.

For the 11th consecutive year, Taiwan's bid to join the WHO was rejected at the World Health Assembly in Geneva today. The reason given for this decision, as always, was that the WHO, in agreement with China's position, will only grant membership to sovereign states.

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