Monday, May 25, 2009

Taiwan, NOT 'China Taiwan,' Reports 1 Case of Swine Flu: The WHO's cross-Strait discord and the Political Influence of Disease

Taiwan now has its own, independent listing in the WHO's table of global swine flu cases. This marks a change from before, when it was listed either under 'China, Taiwan" and other titles that suggests that the island was part of China. These series of articles that I'm sharing report the change but I wish to go a little deeper since this event has great personal significance to me.

Most of my family still live in Taiwan and they were there when the SARS epidemic hit in the beginning of this decade. I recall the injustice my grandparents expressed when the island experienced the SARS epidemic a few years ago. Although new cases of SARS and the consequent arose each, making Taiwan one of the most endemic areas in the world, Taiwan was still excluded from the WHO and its global disease monitoring program. It's request to join were rejected by China, who is one of the five nations on the UN Security Council who possesses veto power, because the latter feared that membership would undermine its claim to governance over the island. Taiwan did not receive the WHO's up-to-date information regarding SARS and its spread, despite the island reporting actively and regularly to the international organization. As a result, Taiwan lagged in receiving information regarding proper handling of the disease, leading to several avoidable deaths. Essentially, one nation harnessed the devastating effects of the SARS epidemic to use as leverage in forcing the other nation towards doing its will.

The difference between the global recognition of SARS and swine flu in the cross-Strait relations testifies the geo-political influence that diseases have, both as a unifying and dividing force. SARS and the swine flu elicited responses from the global company displaying how diseases bring nations, who traditionally have little contact due to distance (i.e. my last week's article about Mexico that was found in an Yugoslavian newspaper) and political interest, together. However, the SARS outbreak showed that when politics is thicker than international health concerns, diseases can exacerbate existing social divides.

I am very glad to see how WHO is currently handling swine flu and that it is advancing away from natural epidemics turning into political leverage. Personally, I see deliberate withholding of life-saving outbreak information just as bad as biological warfare. It's scary to think that only a few short years ago, one set of authority were able to do just that to 23-million people who actively contributed to the global health network while the rest of the world watched. I hope that the current trend continues and that global health leaders are able to see that no group of people should be actively prevented from information regarding defense mechanisms for natural health disasters.


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