Brundtland recalls WHO’s defiance of China on Taiwan

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Gro Harlem Brundtland (Photo courtesy of CNA, 2018.4.2)

Taipei, April 2 (CNA) Gro Harlem Brundtland recalled Monday how as director-general of the World Health Organization she sent experts to Taiwan to help with its efforts to contain severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 despite opposition from China.

Brundtland, who headed the WHO from 1998 to 2003, said the body faced some challenges in its dealings on the Taiwan issue because it is a United Nations organization and had to follow the U.N.’s principles related to participation and rights.

As WHO director-general, however, she had the responsibility entrusted to her by the WHO Constitution to take action on behalf of global health, she recalled.

When SARS broke out in southern China in late 2002, Brundtland said she had a chance to argue the health case and say, “we need every country to be on board in each local area” to deal with the global situation.

“I had the responsibility to work with the health authorities of Taiwan to help prevent spreading in Taiwan or from Taiwan or into Taiwan. In that way, the governments that were most against Taiwan becoming part of the U.N. system had to shut up,” said Brundtland, who also served as Norway’s prime minister.

Some of those governments that were most opposed to working with Taiwan were responsible for the outbreak happening in the first place, she added.

As a result, the WHO was able to cooperate with all of its collaborating centers on critical health issues even though the political question remained, Brundtland said.

The former Norwegian prime minister said her personality probably had something to do with it. “I was not afraid to make tough decisions on behalf of the WHO. I am not afraid generally,” she said.

Brundtland recalled the story when asked by Pao K. Wang (王寶貫), the director of Academia Sinica’s Research Center for Environmental Change (RCEC), at a forum held at the institution.

Wang said then Department of Health chief Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), who is now Taiwan’s vice president, had told him that it was Brundtland’s decision that led the WHO to eventually send its experts to help Taiwan with the epidemic.

Before heading the WHO, Brundtland served as environment minister in Norway in 1974 and then became the country’s first female prime minister in 1981. She served two other times as prime minister, from 1986 to 1989 and 1990 to 1996.

Those experiences made her believe “the necessity of the international system,” because the world needs organizations to take action when government after government is not doing anything or not doing enough in a global crisis, Brundtland said.

According to Chen Chien-jen, the WHO was reluctant initially to respond to Taiwan’s appeal for help in the first place due to opposition from China.

“In 2003, during the SARS outbreak, [researchers from] all the nations in the world except Taiwan had accessibility to the SARS virus and to pandemic information, but we got nothing from the WHO,” Chen told the Times in an interview in May 2017.

Chen has often cited the case to draw world attention to the ever-increasing pressure from China against Taiwan’s international participation that led the WHO to not invite Taiwan to attend the World Heath Assembly, the WHO’s decision making body, in 2017 after allowing it to attend as an observer from 2009 to 2016.

(By Shih Hsiu-chuan)