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WHO offers rare words of praise for Taiwan

WHO official carefully refers to Taiwan as 'economy' instead of country to avoid China's wrath

Dr. Margaret Harris. (WHO image)

Dr. Margaret Harris. (WHO image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — In a rare recognition of Taiwan's existence, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official lauded the country's handling of the Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

In an interview with the Guardian published on Monday (Nov. 2), WHO spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris explained why the organization does not recommend that countries implement full lockdowns as coronavirus cases skyrocket in the U.S. and Europe. Instead, Harris recommended testing, contact tracing, and quarantining and as an example highlighted Taiwan's use of these techniques to avoid a lockdown altogether.

Although WHO officials such as Tedros Adhanom and Bruce Aylward lavished praise on China early on in the pandemic for the alleged results of its extreme lockdown of Wuhan, the organization has maintained that such lockdowns should be something of a last resort. Instead, as stated by Harris, the WHO is advocating isolation: "That's not just the isolation of people who are sick — it's the isolation of people who have contacts and are first-degree contacts."

Unlike Aylward's awkward moment of silence when asked about Taiwan's membership in the WHO, Harris proactively praised Taiwan as having "the best management." However, this was tinged by her labeling of Taiwan as one of the Asian "economies" that contained the virus better, a clear attempt to avoid Chinese angst about Taiwan's status as a country.

Harris chose Taiwan to dispel the myth that only "non-liberal, non-democratic command economies" can control the pandemic by pointing out the fact that it is "definitely a highly liberal society." She emphasized that lockdowns come at a price and that avoiding them requires "a lot of planning. It requires a lot of a great deal of partnership with community and with local authorities..."

Indeed, Taiwan began planning for this pandemic after it learned a hard lesson from SARS 17 years ago, starting with the establishment of a permanent National Health Command Center (NHCC) in 2004. When reports of atypical pneumonia cases in Wuhan started to stream in, Taiwan on Dec. 31 of last year contacted the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and a World Health Organization (WHO) IHR focal point to clarify whether human-to-human transmission was occurring in Wuhan.

However, the WHO only responded with a short message stating that Taiwan's information would be "forwarded to expert colleagues," and China only issued a press release. As a result, Taiwan was unable to receive confirmation through either the WHO or Chinese channels that human-to-human transmission was taking place.

Therefore, the government went ahead and launched enhanced border control and quarantine measures "based on the assumption that human-to-human transmission was in fact occurring," according to the CDC. On Jan. 20, the CECC was activated, with Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) at the helm.

Steps taken by the CECC from that day forward have been key in eliminating local coronavirus infections in Taiwan for 205 days and counting. Examples include canceling entry permits for tourists from Wuhan, implementing mandatory quarantines for all visitors, imposing a total ban on foreign travelers, setting up a name-based mask rationing system, using cellphone data to enforce quarantines, and carrying out extensive contact tracing.