Taiwan’s claim that it provided early warning to the WHO about Covid and “human-to human-transmission” has been exploited by the Trump administration to attack the multi-lateral body and turn up the heat on China. There’s just one problem: it’s totally false.
By Ajit Singh
The Taiwanese government has claimed that it provided early warning to the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of December about the novel coronavirus and the risk of human-to-human transmission, but was ignored due to pressure from China. This claim has been paraded by Taiwanese authorities and the Donald Trump administration in order to slam the WHO as beholden to Chinese interests and advance the cause of Taiwanese separatism, pushing for Taiwan to be granted membership to the WHO independent of China.
However, there is no evidence any such warning was ever issued by Taiwan to the WHO. The confidential communications which were first leaked by Taiwanese authorities, and then confirmed by the WHO, make it clear that Taiwan did not provide any alert or insight with regard to the novel coronavirus. The dishonest claims by Taipei and Washington have been advanced as part of broader, cynical efforts to deflect blame onto the WHO and Chinese government for the coronavirus outbreak.
Although Taiwan has long been used by Washington as a pressure point against Beijing, US support for the island has ratcheted up during the Trump administration and with the election of anti-mainland hardliner Tsai Ing-Wen.
Taiwan never warned the WHO about the novel coronavirus
On April 11, the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control claimed to have alerted the WHO about the novel coronavirus and risk of human-to-human transmission, with the Ministry of Health releasing an email that had been sent to the WHO as purported evidence of this warning.
These claims were amplified by Washington, as part of its attack on the international health body. The US State Department stated that it was “deeply disturbed that Taiwan’s information was withheld from the global health community,” berating the WHO for choosing “politics over public health” by showing “too much deference to China,” and alleging that the WHO’s actions delayed the global coronavirus response and “cost time and lives.”
President Trump also cited the alleged warnings as evidence of the WHO’s “lack of independence” from China in his May 18 letter which detailed the White House’s case for eventually terminating its relationship and funding to the organization.
There is just one small wrinkle in the story: the claims of the US and Taiwanese authorities are a complete fabrication. Taiwan never provided any warning to the WHO about the novel coronavirus or its transmissibility.
The email, the contents of which have been confirmed by both Taiwan and the WHO, did not contain any new information about the coronavirus and made no mention at all of human-to-human transmission. Hours after Chinese authorities published the first official report of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the Taiwanese CDC contacted the WHO and merely restated these public comments.
“News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, China” the email from Taiwan’s CDC read. “Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were not believed to be SARS. However the samples are still under examination and cases have been isolated for treatment.”
— MOHW of Taiwan (@MOHW_Taiwan) April 11, 2020
Instead of providing any new information or warning to the WHO, Taiwanese authorities, in fact, requested information, writing that they “would greatly appreciate it if you have relevant information to share with us.”
The WHO has emphatically rejected the claim that Taiwanese authorities provided an early warning with respect to the novel coronavirus and its transmissibility.
“Did Taiwan warn WHO on 31st December 2019? The answer is no, they didn’t. They did send an email but that email was not a warning. It was a request for more information on cases of atypical pneumonia reported by news sources”, stated Steven Solomon, WHO Principal Legal Officer, during a press conference on May 4.
“The email asked for more information about news reports that WHO and most public health services already knew about. Others in fact sent similar emails that day also asking for more information. These reports about atypical pneumonia cases came from Wuhan itself on the internet […] The reports were therefore already available and the Taiwanese email just requested in very kind terms more information.”
“It’s also important to say that the Wuhan situation had already been captured by WHO on that day, 31st December 2019. WHO activated its incident management protocols the next day, on January 1st, and then along with embedded scientists from other governments WHO began the work which continues to this day analysing the data and seeking additional information.”
Furthermore, although Taiwanese and US authorities have claimed that Taiwan was “ignored” by the WHO, this is not the case. In addition to participating in coronavirus-related forums organized by the WHO, Taiwan is one of a handful of non-state entities with access to the information and communications network established by the International Health Regulations (IHR). The IHR is an instrument of international law that is legally binding on 196 countries and all WHO member states, and was created “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease”.
As such, Taiwanese authorities have a direct channel to the WHO for information about disease outbreaks and are able to send and receive through the IHR network. The Taiwanese CDC made use of this network to send their so-called “warning” e-mail to WHO. In response to their request for more information, the Taiwanese CDC received the technical information, advice, and guidance that was sent by the WHO to all member states through the IHR system.
The WHO told the AFP news agency that it asked Taiwanese authorities to clarify how they “communicated to us” their alleged warnings about the novel coronavirus and human-to-human transmission.
“But we have not received a response,” the WHO said.
The blatant dishonesty of US and Taiwanese authorities has received no serious push back in Western media – and has even been echoed by progressive outlets such as The Nation.
In an April 3 article attacking the WHO and China, Wilfred Chan, a staunch “left-wing” supporter of the Hong Kong separatist protests and founder of the self-styled “pro-democracy” outlet, Lausan, regurgitated the false claims of the US and Taiwan. Chan accused the WHO of “put[ting] politics first” and ignoring “early warnings” from Taiwanese officials due to the malign influence of China. As a result, Chan writes, it is “the rest of the world that’s paying the price.”
US and Taiwan use “early warning” lie to attack WHO and promote Taiwanese separatism
The US and Taiwan have doubled down on the “early warning” lie to further the Trump administration’s campaign against the WHO, as well as promote Taiwanese separatism and undermine Chinese sovereignty over the island. Holding up the alleged “early warnings” provided to the WHO, the US and Taiwan have argued that Taiwan should have a membership in the WHO, independent of China.
In a report released on May 12 titled “Beijing’s Deadly Game: Consequences of Excluding Taiwan from the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, the US government’s US-China Economic and Security Review Commission claimed that Taiwan’s “exclusion” from the WHO threatened global public health and led to coronavirus deaths around the world.
“[T]he WHO’s suppression of information provided by Taiwan […] undermined the national security of the very member states trusting it for authoritative public health guidance,” the report said. “Taiwan’s exclusion […] contributed to critical delays in WHO member states’ receipt of timely and accurate guidance in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO imperils the health of the island’s 23 million people and limits WHO members’ access to crucial public health information, jeopardizing global health,” the US commission concluded.
The US and Taiwan have focused much of their efforts on WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Their hostile campaign has emboldened racist attacks against the first African head of the international health agency, with Dr. Tedros explicitly accusing Taiwanese officials of encouraging such attacks.
In particular, Washington and Taipei attempted to pressure WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan to the recent World Health Assembly (WHA) which was held virtually during May 18 and 19.
“I want to call upon all nations, including those in Europe, to support Taiwan’s participation as an observer at the World Health Assembly and in other relevant United Nations venues,” stated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the lead-up to the global health gathering. “I also call upon WHO Director General Dr. Tedros to invite Taiwan to observe this month’s WHA as he has the power to do and as his predecessors have done on multiple occasions.”
In fact, the US and Taiwan focused on Dr. Tedros in an attempt to bypass the democratic decision-making process of the UN and international community, of which the WHO is a specialized intergovernmental agency. Membership in the WHO is reserved for UN member states, unless approved by a simple majority vote of the 194 member states constituting the WHA, and it is this international assembly, not individual officials, which serves as the WHO’s supreme decision-making authority.
Taiwan is not a member of the UN and only 14 member states — nearly all of which are very small developing countries with close ties to Washington — recognize Taiwan as an independent country. The vast majority of UN member states consider Taiwan to be a province of China.
It was therefore a foregone conclusion that the efforts of Taiwan and the US would fail miserably before a vote of the international community. Unsurprisingly, Taiwan withdrew its membership bid at the last moment in an effort to save face. This likely came at the behest of Washington, with the Taiwanese administration admitting that it “accepted the suggestion from our allies” in coming to the decision.
It was not the WHO that “chose politics over health”, but the US and Taiwan. China invited Taiwan to participate in the WHA as a Chinese province, but the offer was rejected by Taiwanese authorities which refused to acknowledge that the island is part of China.
The rejection exposed the willingness of the Taiwanese administration and its US backers to place their shared separatist political politics above any commitment to global health. Their ulterior agenda became even more clear after the US announced that it was terminating its relationship with the WHO on May 30, after working intensely to secure a more prominent role for Taiwan in the organization less than two weeks prior.
While the US and Taiwan claim that the island is excluded from the UN and its agencies such as WHO due to the diplomatic bullying of an ascendant China, in fact, as outlined below, the international community came to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty five decades ago, when China was far from the global economic power that it is today.
Taiwan’s role as a US foothold against China intensifies under Trump
Following the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party — which received billions of dollars in military and economic support from the US government during the civil war with the Communists — fled to the island of Taiwan. The US signed a mutual defense pact with the KMT and the US military soon moved in and established the United States Taiwan Defense Command, occupying the island with tens of thousands of American troops until 1979.
Lamenting the “loss of China” to socialism, Washington aggressively isolated the newly formed state, imposing an economic blockade and maneuvering to exclude China from the UN for several decades. Despite Beijing governing nearly the entirety of Chinese territory, the US-backed KMT of Taiwan claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of all of China.
For over 20 years following the Chinese Revolution, the KMT regime in Taiwan was recognized by the UN as the representative for China, with the US successfully pushing through a resolution mandating that any change in China’s representation required the support of a two-thirds supermajority of member states in order to pass.
In 1971, the efforts of US and Taiwan were finally defeated, as the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a “one China” policy, passing Resolution 2758 which viewed Taiwan as a province of China, recognized Beijing as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations”, and removed the UN representatives of the KMT. Since this landmark resolution, Taiwan has submitted 16 applications for UN membership and been rejected on every occasion, with the UN consistently affirming its “one China” policy.
In 1979, with the normalization of US-China relations, the US ceased to officially recognize Taiwan. However, despite this formal stance, Washington has maintained its support for separatism and militarization in Taiwan, continuing to use the island as a pressure point against Beijing.
Shortly after severing official ties with Taiwan, US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, legally requiring that the US provide Taiwan with arms “of a defensive nature.” In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan outlined guidelines for US-Taiwan relations in a document known as the Six Assurances. It stated that the US has not altered its position about the sovereignty of Taiwan and will not set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan. The Six Assurances have been affirmed by successive administrations and were formally adopted by the US House of Representatives in a non-binding resolution in 2016.
US support for Taiwan has intensified under the Trump administration, and with strong bipartisan support. This escalation has coincided with the election of anti-mainland hardliner Tsai Ing-Wen as the island’s leader in 2016. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) view Taiwan as an independent country and reject the “1992 consensus”, which refers to negotiations between China and Taiwan that affirmed that both sides viewed the island and mainland as part of one, undivided country, despite disagreements over who the legitimate representative was. Following his election in 2016, President Trump accepted a phone call from Tsai, which marked the first formal conversation between a US President and a Taiwanese leader since official relations were severed in 1979.
Under the Trump administration, Washington has increased the frequency of arms sales and warship maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait as part of its China containment strategy. President Trump has approved the sale of billions of dollars worth of arms to Taiwan, including fighter jets, tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, and most recently $180 million worth of torpedoes on May 21. Washington has also enacted several new laws as part of this effort, including the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high-level officials of the US to visit Taiwan and vice versa, and the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act.
The TAIPEI Act requires the US government to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relationships around the world and push for Taiwan’s inclusion in international bodies. The legislation also creates legal grounds to pressure other states to follow its policy on Taiwan, requiring the US government to “alter” its engagement with countries deemed to “undermine the security or prosperity of Taiwan.”
America’s hawkish stance with respect to Taiwan is reinforced by a foreign policy echo chamber in Washington with substantial ties to the island. As journalist Eli Clifton detailed, some of Washington’s most prominent foreign policy think tanks — including the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, the Center for a New American Security, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Hudson Institute — receive high-level funding from Taiwanese authorities. Pushing for aggressive policies towards China and closer US-Taiwan ties, these institutions frequently bury the evidence of said funding and, according to Clifton, “[n]one of their researchers disclose the potential conflict of interest”.
As the new Cold War against China heats up, few established voices in Washington seem prepared to challenge the militaristic consensus. In such an atmosphere, deceptions like Taiwan’s false claims about a WHO cover-up are allowed to fester without a challenge, severing multi-lateral cooperation and deepening the hostility between Washington and Beijing.
Ajit Singh is a lawyer and journalist. He is a contributing author to Keywords in Radical Philosophy and Education: Common Concepts for Contemporary Movements (Brill: 2019). He tweets at @ajitxsingh.