- Hamstrung by the state-based nature of the UN, from which it derives its authority, the WHO ignored early warnings about the coronavirus from Taipei. Now the agency’s all-too-cosy relationship with Beijing has been exposed by RTHK
The state of a public broadcaster is intimately intertwined with the health of a nation and the world that it serves. In its purest form, a public broadcaster serves the state by not parroting its officials or apparatuses. It serves the state's constituent citizenry through disseminating facts and information, and encouraging participation in public life, so that citizens, in the words of the World Radio and Television Council in 2001, can "better understand themselves by better understanding the world and others".
Upon succeeding Margaret Chan Fung Fu-chun as director general of the World Health Organisation in 2017, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated his vision of "a world in which everyone can live healthy, productive lives, regardless of who they are or where they live".
Today, not only is Tedros' vision in tatters, the coronavirus outbreak, discovered last December in Wuhan, has illuminated vividly the importance of an independent public broadcaster " and, more generally, an independent press " and its causal relations with public health in the most literal sense.
For weeks, Tedros unquestionably endorsed Chinese officials' assessment of the outbreak as "moderate" despite their initial cover-up. On January 30, when declaring the coronavirus a global health emergency, he described travel restrictions on travellers from mainland China as unnecessary.
Without reflecting on the lethal nature of his own misinformation, he cautioned the world at the Munich Security Conference on February 15: "We're not just fighting an epidemic; we're fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous."
The coronavirus outbreak, which the WHO finally declared a pandemic on March 11, has since spread to over 170 countries, with over 900,000 confirmed cases and 45,000 fatalities.
In addition to failing its principal purpose, contributing to untold casualties and human suffering, and sending the global economy into an unprecedented shutdown, the WHO's mishandling of the pandemic has jeopardised the legitimacy of the United Nations, of which it is a specialised agency responsible for international public health.
Amid continual zigzagging between Beijing and Washington as to who is (more) responsible, calls for China's "reckoning", and nation-states returning to the fetal position by putting up shutters, international cooperation has not been in a more precarious place since the Cold War.
Equally dangerously, the WHO's advocacy of a Wuhan-style lockdown, initially laughed at as something out of a dystopic film and now emulated across the world, has legitimised authoritarian governance that political leaders will be loath to resist henceforth.
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Hamstrung by the state-based nature of the UN, from which it derives authority and power, the WHO ignored early warnings from the Taiwanese health authorities in December about the human-to-human transmissibility of the coronavirus.
Australian legal scholar James Crawford, a judge of the International Court of Justice, wrote in 1979: "A state is not a fact in the sense that a chair is a fact; it is a fact in the sense in which it may be said a treaty is a fact: that is, a legal status attaching to a certain state of affairs by virtue of certain rules or practices."
Article 4.1 of the UN Charter states that UN membership is open to all "peace-loving states". In a 2009 article in the peer-reviewed Chinese Journal of International Law, I examined the legal status of Taiwan and concluded that Taiwan was not a state and was part of China under international law.
That having been said, whether Taiwan is a state or part of China does not alter the fact that its 23.8 million people are entitled to meaningful representation at the international level, and does not undermine what its people can contribute to world affairs. It is almost trite to say a coronavirus does not respect borders. Neither does it care about state sovereignty, however sacrosanct it is.
Unlike the UN Security Council, the WHO should have concerned itself solely with matters of international public health, inoculated from high politics.
Given its proximity to mainland China, its abundance of world-class medical personnel (Taiwan's vice-president is a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist) and its independent press, Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO, as a member or as an observer, is a profound loss the world has come to regret.
Exclusion goes both ways; by excluding Taiwan from the WHO, the world has been precluded from accessing Taiwan's experience, knowledge and know-how in epidemiological detection, containment and prevention.
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The correlation between press freedom and the borderless nature of international public health was thrown into sharp relief when Bruce Aylward, a Johns Hopkins-trained Canadian epidemiologist and the WHO's frontman for China's coronavirus containment efforts, was asked in a video call on March 28 by Yvonne Tong, a journalist from Hong Kong's embattled public broadcaster RTHK, on the programme The Pulse, about the value and potential of Taiwan joining the WHO in preventing epidemics in future.
In a fashion reminiscent of the WHO's initial approach to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan and its kowtowing to the Chinese authorities, Aylward first pretended not to have heard Tong's question and then appeared to disconnect the video call, as if the world could not see through his actions and lack of principle, especially when juxtaposed with Tong's admirable calm and persistence.
In the face of an avalanche of bad publicity, management in Geneva quickly "disappeared" Aylward as assistant director general at WHO as of March 29.
Since anti-government protests erupted in Hong Kong last June, RTHK has been a lightning rod for criticism from Beijing, Hong Kong government officials and Hong Kong police for its fearless reporting and critique of their failings, abuse and brutality.
Now it has done one better, by exposing so dispassionately and effectively the all-too-cosy relationship between Beijing and the WHO that no number of face masks China is providing other countries with can mask, all the more so as China has been expelling foreign journalists.
Hongkongers should all take pride in, and defend, RTHK as our one "national treasure" and a beacon of public broadcasting, especially in these darkest times.
Phil C.W. Chan is author of the book China, State Sovereignty and International Legal Order, and has worked in research, academia and think tanks in Asia, Australasia, Europe, North America and the Middle East in the past 16 years
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