- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

When a 7.3 magnitude earthquake shook central Taiwan on Sept. 21, 1999, the world immediately recognized that a concerted and immediate effort was necessary to save lives and limit collateral damage. The international community responded swiftly with generous support and expert assistance for locating survivors. For this, the people and government of the Republic of China are very grateful. The arrival of rescue specialists from all over the world was a powerful reminder of the basic human impulse to come together in the face of adversity.
There are important lessons to learn from this experience. Routine differences pale in significance at such times. During the most critical moments of disaster response, it is clear that we all share the same concerns.
This is in fact the same spirit behind the everyday activities of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its mission is to ensure the health and safety of people around the world by coordinating medical resources. To do this, it works to save lives and limit damage caused by disease outbreaks on a daily basis in the absence of such high profile events as earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions.
This is the same spirit as that demonstrated by international search and rescue specialists working alongside Taiwan's emergency response workers an unselfish sharing of resources and expertise for the benefit of all.
WHO's assistance and expertise would be very welcome in Taiwan in the aftermath of the earthquake. My country has completed the first phase of earthquake disaster response, but the next step involves housing victims and continuing efforts to contain the health threat posed by the earthquake and its aftermath. The greatest threat to the well-being of survivors now is no longer structurally unsafe buildings, but rather a disrupted public sanitation infrastructure that inevitably follows in the wake of such a large-scale disaster.
Lots of livestock perished in the resultant landslides. Survivors awaiting the completion of temporary housing are especially vulnerable to afflictions caused by exposure to weather, crowded living conditions and contaminated water supplies. This threatens public health in the disaster area, the rest of the country and even beyond.
Under such circumstances, any country would turn to WHO for expert consultation and coordination. Yet, when it comes to Taiwan, WHO must rely on non-official, private-sector channels to offer assistance. My country has been excluded from the organization since 1972, and the United Nations remains under pressure from Beijing to keep things that way, despite all the changes that have taken place in the world order since then.
Fortunately this time WHO was able to make use of indirect channels to assess the magnitude of the problem and offer its help. For instance, it donated $50,000 to the Red Cross for use as relief aid. The people and government of the Republic of China greatly appreciate this gesture of concern.
And also fortunately, the result of the WHO assessment was that Taiwan's medical and disaster relief resources are up to the challenge posed by the earthquake. Nevertheless the important long-term global mission of the WHO remains compromised by Taiwan's exclusion. Direct and unobstructed participation in international health cooperation forums and programs is critical, given today's greater potential for the cross-border spread of various infectious diseases through increased trade and travel.
And by not being permitted a role in the WHO, Taiwan has no access to information concerning global regulations on the laboratory testing of bio-products. It cannot participate in the development of bio-product standards, and its bio-products cannot be recognized by other countries. This is a particularly unfortunate way to start the 21st century when this technology will have such an important role to play for many decades to come.
Taiwan's massive earthquake dramatically underscored how strong our ties are with other countries in the international community, and how insignificant political matters become at such moments. While there is no way to restore the lives lost or to fully recover the beauty of the areas worst affected, it is possible to bring some good out of adversity.
Taiwan has applied for observer status in the WHO, an organization where common global medical and public health concerns should clearly take priority over pedestrian political issues. There should be no more appropriate time than this to eliminate the artificial barriers hampering WHO's coordination of global resources to ensure the safety of people in all countries. Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO not only compromises the public health interests of the 22 million people of Taiwan, but also represents a loss for the entire world.
The exigencies of disaster have demonstrated that its non-political priorities are in accord with the human heart. Let us go on listening to our hearts. There is a role in the WHO for Taiwan that will make the world a healthier and safer place.

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