- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2020

It goes almost without saying that it is foolhardy to play politics with a possible impending pandemic. Rising above politics, however, is tough for politicians and almost impossible for China’s Communist rulers who always and in every way put their ideological interests above all else regardless of the consequences to others.

Nowhere are the potential risks of putting politics above all else more acute than in dealing with the various flu-like pandemics that have a tendency to emerge first in China and then spread to surrounding countries and the rest of the world. 

Perhaps the best example of China’s willingness to ignore any risk to promote its political agenda can be seen in Beijing’s continuing opposition to Taiwan’s membership in the World Health Organization or WHO. The Chinese Communists do everything they can to isolate the Republic of China on Taiwan from the rest of the world, insisting that Taiwan is a part of China and that other countries should not recognize the Taipei government.

In 1972, as a result, Taiwan was kicked out of the World Health Organization. The United States and many others protested the action at the time, arguing that the decision to exclude a nation of 23 million people within shouting distance of the Chinese mainland was dangerous.

The United States and other nations argued that excluding Taiwan from the WHO was a danger not just to the Taiwanese, but to the world. As one health expert said at the time, its exclusion would leave “a hole” in the international safety net protecting the world from diseases that cross international borders.

Obviously, Beijing’s leaders were risking much for purely political reasons and had to realize that by doing so they might, sometime in the future, put their citizens and the world in danger, but considered it a risk worth taking. That cost of putting ideology above all else first became jarringly apparent during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS that migrated from China to much of the rest of the world.

Beijing kept the WHO from working with Taiwan and the WHO ignored that nation’s pleas for help for more than a month. The outbreak was contained, but nearly 350 people died on the Chinese mainland and another 37 lost their lives in Taiwan.

In spite of not being a part of the WHO, Taiwan, one of the world’s most advanced nations in terms of health care and research, contributed significantly to fighting SARS and later the Ebola outbreaks that have plagued several African nations. Therefore, world health experts must have breathed a sigh of relief when in 2009, Beijing reluctantly agreed to allow Taiwan to attend WHO meetings as an observer. That relief proved short-lived.

In 2016, Beijing again demanded Taiwan be excluded from the WHO even as an observer and once again the world bent to the Communist leadership’s political demands.

To anyone who followed what happened as the SARS scare mounted in 2003, the events of the last couple of months seem like “deja vu all over again” with potentially far more deadly consequences. When the dangers inherent in the emergence of the COVID-19 or coronavirus sank in, the WHO sprang into action, convening an emergency meeting attended by health professionals from around the world — with the exception of Taiwan 

At the same time, a spokesman for the regime in Beijing assured everyone they need not worry because “No one cares more about the health of the Taiwanese people than the Chinese Central Government.” Since then that concern has been expressed in various ways.

More than a million Taiwanese were in China at the end of the year. They’ve had a hard time getting home and Taiwanese officials believe their citizens stranded in China aren’t getting the treatment they need. Their pleas for transparency and offers to help, however, are ignored by Communist authorities seemingly more interested in their political position than the health of people they claim to care about so much.

The world had mostly forgotten China’s lack of transparency and willingness to fully cooperate with the effort to defeat the SARS epidemic, but if the current coronavirus proves itself as dangerous as some suspect, no one is likely to forget or forgive a nation that doesn’t put politics aside to save lives. 

SARS was a coronavirus, too, but a seemingly weaker cousin of the current virus. Minimizing its impact will require a politics-free international response and if China wants to be remembered as part of that response Beijing should let the world know that to that end it will no longer object to Taiwan’s membership in the WHO regardless of two nations’ continuing political differences — and if it won’t, the rest of the world should ignore China’s objections.  

• David A. Keene is an editor at large for The Washington Times.

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