17 February 2020 - Looking back at the events of last week, when late evening of Monday the 10th, the Civil Aeronautics Board implemented a travel ban upon Taiwan based on the decision of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease (then called nCov 2019), and the subsequent withdrawal of the same travel ban on Friday evening, Valentine’s Day, there are lessons to be learned.
But first, as Chair and Resident Representative of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office in Taiwan, I need to thank all those who decided to take a second look at the factual bases for the February 10-imposed travel ban, which lasted less than four days.
We called Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea, Justice Secretary Meynard Guevarra and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. by phone the following day, to seek a reconsideration of the IATF decision to ban all travel to and from Taiwan and the Philippines.
They all promised to talk to DOH Secretary Francisco Duque, the chair of the task force.
Meanwhile in Manila, MECO Vice-Chair Gilbert Lauengco talked to DFA Undersecretary Brigido Dulay and Bureau of Immigration Commissioner Tobias Javier to explain all the protocols MECO had instituted to tighten the procedure for the grant of travel visas to the Philippines, which we instituted on February 4, to prevent the possible use of our visas to gain entry through Taiwan if they had been to China or its special administrative regions since the middle of January. These were detailed in our February 9 article entitled “Precautionary measures.”
Our Taipei labor attache, Atty. Cesar Chavez, likewise called up DOLE Sec. Silvestre Bello to ask for his support, considering the possible negative impact the travel ban would have on our almost 160,000 Filipinos, 154,000 of whom are working here in factories, fishing vessels and households. For her part, DOT Secretary Berna Romulo Puyat opened a chat account with me and asked for clarification on both MECO visa strictures and Taiwan health protocols to obviate the possibility of the Wuhan originating virus (now called COVID 19 by the World Health Organization) from spreading to our country via travelers from this island nation.
All of them promised to support the immediate lifting of the travel ban.
But on Wednesday morning, close to noon, the Director General of the Asia-Pacific Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Baushan Ger called to inform me of an emergency meeting called by Pres. Tsai Ing-wen to discuss the sudden travel ban. Members of the Legislative Yuan (Congress) were up in arms at the imposition of the ban when there was no factual health-related problem of such proportions as to warrant the same. Because of a DOH statement where basis was made on the WHO geographical map categorizing Taiwan as a province of China, officialdom, media and the general public protested strongly. This protest was also officially voiced out by the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in our capital through Resident Representative Michael Pei-yung Hsu.
Despite the wave of protests, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu cautioned against harsh official reactions especially since we had conveyed the previous night that we had talked to Philippine officials who promised to help re-assess the situation. President Tsai, who was recently overwhelmingly re-elected to a second term on the strength of her independent stance vis-à-vis the mainland, just asked the ministers to list down what possible calibrated responses the government could undertake.
By then, I was swamped with phone calls from all over, and I had to explain, especially to our fellow Filipinos, through mainstream and social media, what was happening and the possible repercussions of the ban on the usually warm and friendly Philippine-Taiwan relations.
A meeting of the IATF was scheduled on Friday afternoon in Malacanang at the instance of ES Medialdea. His office invited MECO Vice-Chair Lauengco so that we could explain both MECO visa-issuance restrictions and Taiwan health protocols in containing the spread of the COVID-19 or Wuhan virus.
Finally, in the early evening of Friday the 14th, the IATF decided to lift the travel ban on Taiwan effective immediately.
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The internal lessons we could learn from this suddenly announced but quickly reversed action on the part of our government are very basic public administration precepts, which Education Secretary Liling Briones used to teach us at the University of the Philippines—National College of Public Administration and Governance.
Complete staff work (CSW), FVR’s favorite admonition to his staff. Proper coordination among all agencies and sectors concerned. And communication, the failure of which even DOTr Secretary Arturo Tugade decried in a Senate hearing of the Committee on Health chaired by Senator Bong Go just the week before the fiasco.
But all these lessons are now behind us, hopefully to be borne in mind by everyone in times of crisis and even the quotidian routine of governance.
But there is one external issue that bothers this writer, and that is the continuing denial by the United Nations member of its Development Group—the World Health Organization, the WHO, of Taiwan’s legitimate right to participate in its policies and programmes, even as an observer.
The WHO has 194 member states and two associate members, Puerto Rico and Tokelau. Even Palestine and the Vatican are recognized on observer status.
But not Taiwan, which has a population of 23.4 million compared to say, Singapore’s less than 6 million, or Slovenia, with less than 3 million. Despite its repeated protests, Taiwan is not allowed to participate in WHO forums, especially the World Health Assembly which determines the policies of the organization.
Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO is political, dictated by the One China policy to which all countries excepting 15 (of which the Vatican is one) basically subscribe to.
But should not health be beyond politics? Especially when there is a pandemic gripping the whole world affecting not just any living creature, but human beings?
Taiwan has asked repeatedly that it be allowed to participate in the WHO and repeatedly the WHO has denied its taking part in the World Health Assembly even as an observer.
Denial of WHO membership puts Taiwan at risk of missing firsthand updates on infectious diseases, even though it overcomes that by its own advanced research. Had it not been for quick action by Taiwan, which, if the stories about Wuhan’s delayed response to a looming health crisis could have massively affected the residents of the island, cousins as they are to the mainland, we would be having a major health contagion here.
Even as the new viral disease has caused almost 67,000 infections and more than 1,500 deaths in the mainland, there are only 18 infections in Taiwan, three of whom have been recently discharged from the hospital, and no deaths due to the Wuhan virus.
A Taiwan engaged in the fight against disease through the WHO would certainly be a service to all who live in this planet, and the WHO’s disregard of it is a disservice to humanity.
Health, like other basic concerns, must never be sacrificed in the altar of politics.