Taiwan basks in good health despite global pandemic

Special to WorldTribune.com

By John J. Metzler

A visit by an American Secretary of Health to an East Asian ally would seemingly not register much media attention, especially during the Summer.  But in the age of global Corona and the deadly spread of the Covid-19 virus, health certainly matters.

So, when U.S.  Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar arrived in Taiwan on a four-day fact finding mission, the highest level visit by a U.S. government official since Washington broke diplomatic ties with the Republic of China on Taiwan in 1979, people took careful note.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s Aug. 10 meeting in Taipei with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen marked the highest-level U.S. diplomatic visit to Taiwan since the 1970s. / Taiwan Presidential Office

The stunning symbolism of a large blue and white jet emblazoned with the United States of America touching down at Taipei’s downtown SongShan airport, with a close backdrop of the capital’s skyline, reaffirmed Washington’s growing, if still unofficial, friendship with Taiwan.

There were many ironies here, none of which were lost on the Beijing communists who predictably huffed and puffed.  Taiwan, whose government has faced an unfair political ostracism, despite the island’s global business links, has basked in the well-earned glory of being on the cutting edge of health efforts to contain the Covid-19 virus.

Though Taiwan is internationally praised for its genuine democracy and socio/economic success story, it’s less known that the small New Hampshire sized island ranks equally well on the health and medical services scale.   Taiwan is one of the few places which had the capacity to quickly contain and control the deadly COVID-19 virus when it spread from the Chinese Mainland.

Since the onset of the virus, Taiwan, with a population of 23 million and despite its proximity to China, has registered just 484 covid cases with 7 fatalities. Equally South Korea, with a larger population of 51 million, has had 15,320 cases with 305 deaths.

Notably Taiwan has excellent public health policy, preparedness and gains from previous experience with epidemics such as SARS back in 2003.

During a meeting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, Secretary Azar said, “It is a true honor to be here to convey a message of strong support and friendship from President Trump to Taiwan,” adding, “Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture.”

Secretary Azar stressed, “This visit represents an acknowledgement of the United States and Taiwan’s deep friendship and partnership across security, economic, healthcare, and democratic open transparent values,” he added, “about reaffirming our connections with Taiwan and the   important role Taiwan plays in public health.”

To deliberately spoil the moment, two Chinese communist fighter jets earlier skirted Taiwan’s airspace in the mid-Taiwan Straits before being shooed away.

Later Secretary Azar praised the Taipei government’s efforts, “Taiwan’s approach to combating the virus through openness, transparency and cooperation stands in stark contrast to the country where the virus began”.  He warned, “The Chinese Communist Party had the chance to warn the world and work with the world on battling the virus.  But they chose not to, and the costs of that choice mount higher every day.”

Speaking separately Taipei’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu stressed, Taiwan faces an increasingly tough situation as China continues to politically pressure it into accepting “conditions that would turn Taiwan into the next Hong Kong.”

Here’s part of Taipei’s dilemma.  Trying to create diplomatic space in an environment where the rival People’s Republic of China has blocked Taiwan from participating in international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO).  Early in the COVID crisis, China was blithely assuring WHO’s Director General and officials that the Wuhan virus would not transmit to humans.

Beijing has used its position in the WHO to politically and recklessly “control the narrative” over many infectious diseases which started on the Chinese Mainland such as SARS or Covid-19.

Shortly after Secretary Azar’s visit, the Trump Administration gave the green light to long- awaited sales of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.  The purchase 66 of the latest model F-16 jets by Taiwan marks the first American sale of new F-16’s since former president George H. W. Bush approved orders of 150 F-16s in 1992. Is the defense deal just coincidental?

And on the diplomatic front Taiwan is awaiting a large political and commercial delegation from the Czech Republic.  The Senate President, the Mayor of Prague, parliamentarians and business figures will visit Taiwan to strengthen relations.

Given Beijing’s reputation in the pandemic era, democratic Taiwan now basks in the limelight.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]