On global and home arenas, the assaults on lives of working people are being carried out by the ruling elite, fabricating pretexts for its class war. The pretext usually takes the form of a story, beginning with a crisis that requires intervention. One recent example of this was Washington’s responses to the covid-19 pandemic. To divert attention away from mounting social anger over the catastrophic social and economic consequences of the utterly criminal herd immunity policy adopted by the U.S. ruling establishment, U.S. President Donald Trump falsely blamed the World Health Organization (WHO) for allowing the disease to run rampant and subsequently threatened to permanently defund the UN body.
It is, however, less known to the public the role played by Taiwan in this episode, particularly the context in which a key Taiwanese part of the U.S. official story emerged. The story that had serious implications for the world began in March 2020 in Taiwan. Entitled ‘Taiwan says WHO failed to act on coronavirus transmission warning’, an article of the Financial Times dated 20 March created a stir. In an interview with the FT, vice president of the Republic of China (hereafter Taiwan) Chen Chien-jen revealed that Taiwan alerted the WHO to the danger of human-to-human transmission of the novel coronavirus at the end of December 2019, but the UN body failed to pass this crucial information on to the world. Being vice president of Academia Sinica (2011-2015), winner of the 2012 Global Achievement Award from Johns Hopkins University and foreign associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, his prestige along with expertise in epidemiology lent a great deal of intellectual credibility to his claims. It was not the first time that he made these claims, however. In an early March 2020 interview with Mirror Media, a Taiwanese magazine, he castigated the WHO for failing to heed Taiwan’s transmission warning. The revelation, perhaps not coincidentally, came two months before Taiwan’s bid to regain observer status at the World Health Assembly (WHA).
The Policy of ‘Naming and Shaming’ of the WHO
Taiwan, being some kind of Cassandra, cautioning the WHO to take prompt action to contain the spread of the virus, immediately drew international and national media attention. Speaking at a press briefing on 24 March 2020, health minister of Taiwan Chen Shih-chung confirmed the vice president’s claims, but no evidence was provided to the public to substantiate any of these statements. Instead, attention was drawn to the ability of Taiwan to detect transmission early on and to take necessary precautions. Taiwan’s response to the outbreak had then been hailed by the ruling elite of Taiwan as a model to be emulated across the world. With the corporate and social media of Taiwan providing non-stop coverage denouncing the WHO for the supposed delay in informing the world, the populace of the island country quickly came to realize that without Taiwan’s participation, international efforts to contain the pandemic were met with little success and had devastating consequences for the world.
The most recent allegation directed against the international body by Taiwan was by no means an isolated incidence. Indeed, similar accusations made by the ruling elite of Taiwan against the WHO and its leadership often adopted a blatantly nationalist tone. Ranting in a way that was reminiscent of Donald Trump, a spokesperson for president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-Wen, Huang Jhong-yan berated the WHO for being beholden to China and for exhibiting utter ineptitude. Huang not only branded WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus a likely case of ‘Wuhan encephalitis’ (brain dysfunction) but also urged people to take the WHO chief’s temperature. Aimed directly at the WHO, the outright disparaging phrase ‘Wuhan encephalitis’ was derived from derogatory terms for China such as ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ and ‘Wuhan virus’. These terms are frequently hurled by the ruling elite at anyone or anything that is suspected of having ties to China.
It is little surprise that the ruling establishment and the Public Television Service of Taiwan have continued to refer to covid-19 as ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ in mandarin Chinese since December 2019. The government has defended this usage despite the fact that the disease was designated covid-19 by the WHO in mid-February 2020. When asked by VOA reporter whether the usage of the phrase ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ was derogatory, Chen Shih-chung explained that the term was deployed as a convenient shorthand and meant no harm to anyone. Likewise, premier of Taiwan Su Tseng-chang insisted that covid-19 be called ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ in accordance with its country of origin, similar to the way that German measles and Japanese encephalitis acquired their names.
With an undertone of xenophobia, the usage of the phrase ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ by the ruling class was no slip of the tongue. Rallying support at home and abroad for Taiwan’s bid to join the WHA in May 2020, state officials of Taiwan were aware of a 2015 guidance issued by the WHO, expressly instructing that the practices for naming infectious diseases should ‘minimize unnecessary negative impact of disease names on trade, travel, tourism or animal welfare, and avoid causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups’ (eg German measles, Japanese encephalitis and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).
One obvious question arises. How did health officials of Taiwan discover human-to-human transmission in Wuhan at a very early stage of the outbreak? Back in December 2019, the etiology of pneumonia cases was not yet known, and there was not a single confirmed infection in Taiwan. It was China that first identified the pathogen and released the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus on 12 January 2020. Two days later, on 14 January 2020, the WHO cautioned the possibility of ‘limited human-to-human transmission’ of the virus. Moreover, Taiwan did not dispatch experts to China to investigate the outbreak until mid-January 2020. The aforementioned question had remained unanswered in March 2020.
Viewing the supposed exposé as opportunity to distract attention of the U.S. working class from the disastrous social and economic crisis triggered by the pandemic, the U.S. political establishment immediately amplified Chen Chien-jen’s allegations. For example, U.S. state department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus tweeted on 24 March 2020:
Dec. 31 — that's the same day Taiwan first tried to warn WHO of human-human transmission. Chinese authorities meanwhile silenced doctors and refused to admit human-human transmission until Jan. 20, with catastrophic consequences. #CovidCoverup #ChinaTransparencyNow pic.twitter.com/dGYF0zpiqU
— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) March 23, 2020
Her tweet concerning Taiwan’s alert had then been uncritically presented as an established fact by the U.S. and Taiwan political and media establishment. Trump then instructed his administration on 14 April 2020 to halt funding to the WHO. Without naming any country, he asserted on the same day, ‘There was credible information [provided by a country] to suspect human-to-human transmission in December 2019, which should have spurred the WHO to investigate, and investigate immediately’, but the UN body ‘failed in this basic duty’. Following his move to suspend funding to the WHO, he then blasted its experts in a tweet dated 17 April 2020 for ‘Ignor[ing] an email from Taiwanese health officials in late December alerting them to the possibility that CoronaVirus could be transmitted between humans’.
Emboldened by Trump’s stance, the ruling class of Taiwan not only applauded this ongoing assault against the WHO but also endorsed a crowdfunded media campaign for the restoration of Taiwan’s observer status at the WHA. Explicitly premised on Taiwan’s warning along with the UN body’s guilt and provocatively headlined ‘WHO can help?’ in blue — the color of the WHO logo and emblem, a full page advertisement dated 14 April 2020 in the New York Times declared: ‘Taiwan’ (could help). The word ‘Taiwan’ stood alone, signifying the exclusion of the island country by the WHO and China. The ad then solemnly pronounced, ‘In a time of isolation, we choose solidarity.’
Myth Confronts Reality
As allegations levelled against the WHO would seriously undermine international efforts to fight the pandemic, the Lancet correctly stated, ‘it is essential that any review of the global response is based on a factually accurate account of what took place in December and January’. A close scrutiny of Taiwanese government press releases shows that the story of the WHO’s failure to act upon Taiwan’s warning only became official and mainstream after the supposed exposé came out in March 2020. Taking its cue from the vice president and the Trump administration, the ruling class of Taiwan hastened to direct public attention to the presumed contrast between Taiwan being a champion of transparency and democracy and the WHO being a puppet entirely subordinated to the dictates of Beijing.
It is reasonable to ask under what circumstances health officials of Taiwan filed its transmission warning with the UN body and what actually happened between December and January. It emerged at a mid-April press briefing that on 31 December 2019 a Taiwan CDC (Centers for Disease Control) doctor came across a message at Gossip forum. The forum was designated Gossip by PTT, the largest computer Bulletin Board Service (BBS) of Taiwan. The message showed screenshots of posts in Chinese social media in which Li Wenliang, Chinese coronavirus whistleblower, first warned on 30 December 2019 the potential danger from a SARS-like disease in Wuhan, China. The Taiwanese physician immediately informed Taiwan CDC. Suspecting that the infections in Wuhan were highly contagious and an outbreak would have ensued, Taiwan CDC swiftly sent off the following message to the WHO on 31 December:
News resources today indicate that at least seven atypical pneumonia cases were reported in Wuhan, CHINA. Their health authorities replied to the media that the cases were believed not SARS; however the samples are still under examination, and cases have been isolated for treatment. I would greatly appreciate it if you have relevant information to share with us. Thank you very much in advance for your attention to this matter.
Clearly, the email made no reference whatsoever to human-to-human transmission and confirmed no direct evidence linking the coronavirus with transmission. The much-touted alert to the WHO was intended to elicit further information from the international body in an attempt to control the spread of the disease.
In addition, contrary to the oft-repeated official story, a press release dated 6 January 2020 issued by Taiwan CDC indicated that ‘the ongoing pneumonia outbreak in China is not fully transparent’. Health officials of Taiwan planned to visit China to gather more detailed information about the outbreak. ‘Based on the information released by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention as of January 5, 2020,’ Taiwan CDC surmised,
no evidence of human-to-human transmission had been found, and no illnesses had been reported among healthcare workers. In addition, tests have ruled out influenza, avian influenza, mumps virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The source of infection is still being investigated. Taiwan CDC will continue to closely monitor the development of the pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China.
It is not difficult to see that with the information made available by the Chinese counterpart, Taiwan CDC knew what the disease was not, but virtually nothing about what the disease was at the early stage of the outbreak.
Despite knowing very little about the epidemic, Taiwan took a series of complex precautionary measures to prevent the spread of infection. Indeed, Taiwan CDC conceded in a press release dated 11 April 2020 that ‘we could not state directly and conclusively that there had been human-to-human transmission’ of the virus in December 2019. In plain terms, this implies that had Taiwanese health officials found evidence of transmission in December 2019, the 6 January 2020 press release, declaring that there was no such evidence, would have amounted to an outright falsehood and a blatant coronavirus cover-up, to borrow a phrase from Trump. Given these, it would be more accurate to say that the fiction of Taiwan being a Cassandra cautioning transmission was brought to life by the vice president in March 2020. The story was then taken as the premise from which arguments concerning the WHO’s failure could be trumped up and exploited by the ruling class. In April 2020, Taiwan’s official tale of the transmission warning and the U.S. story of the alleged coronavirus cover-up were fused into a single representation.
In spite of the fact that Taiwan’s official account was riddled with contradictions and was built on a pack of lies, this did not stop the U.S. and Taiwan ruling elite from insisting that the WHO be denounced and defunded for ‘dereliction of duty’ and for the alleged cover-up that could potentially cost the lives of millions around the globe. Deputy director general of Taiwan CDC Lo Yi-chun condemned the WHO for ‘provid[ing] a false sense of security to the world’. Likewise, Chen Shih-chung asked ‘If being treated in isolation is not a warning, then what is?’ Had his standard held valid, then both Taiwan and China could have claimed credit for urging caution. As indicated by the WHO, Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of cases of pneumonia being isolated and treated at the end of December 2019.
Solidarity with the U.S. Bourgeoisie
The ongoing rift within the WHO has implications for the world. As the Lancet pointed out,
By making unfounded allegations against [the] WHO and by stopping much-needed financial aid to the agency during a global health crisis, President Trump has damaged the integrity of his office and his government.
The medical journal further stated,
President Trump’s decision to harm an agency whose sole purpose is to protect the health and wellbeing of the world’s peoples is a crime against humanity. It is a knowing and inhumane attack against the global civilian population.
It should be underlined that the entire ruling establishment of Taiwan was a willing accomplice to this plot. Taiwan has ceaselessly likened combating the spread of covid-19 to fighting a war. Given the fact that the official account of the WHO’s failure to heed Taiwan’s warning amounted to a frame-up, it is fair to say that the insidious role played by the ruling elite of Taiwan in providing alibies to the Trump regime and in cheerleading the blaming and hemorrhaging of the UN body amid the global public health crisis, in actual fact, amounted to a class war against the Global South and U.S. working people, to say the least.
The ruling establishment’s intrigue against the WHO might seem at odds with Taiwan’s failed bid to join the WHA this past May, but there was no contradiction between Taiwan being seen fighting a David and Goliath-like battle with both the WHO and China and Taiwan flaring up geopolitical tensions within the UN body from outside. Both served the interests of the ruling class of Taiwan and its neo-fascist backers to perpetuate the myth that working people had shared national interests with their capitalist exploiters and oppressors. By polarizing workers and masses along national, racial, ethnic and linguistic lines, the bourgeoisie can easily turn the masses of working people into prisoners of nationalism. Social anger concerning the erosion of job security, wages, working conditions and living standards could subsequently be directed back into ‘market reform’, ‘governance initiatives’, and ‘entrepreneurial endeavor’, to use Taiwan’s official parlance.
As Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago:
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. […] The Irishman … sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified … by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class.… It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
It is today more true than ever Marx’s insight into the subordination of workers to the ruling elite and into the class war waged by the bourgeoisie at home and abroad. Deeply embedded in social relations and material structures of capitalism, identity politics of ‘my-country-first’ is not merely discursive maneuver and binary oppositions (eg us versus them and good versus evil). Rather, it functions as an instrument of social control and class rule. Identity politics, encompassing reactionary social constructs, such as national interests, national security, xenophobia, nativism, racism and sexism, will not be eliminated before the eventual overthrow of capitalism—the very system that engenders colonialist plunder, imperialism, nationalism and gross inequality. It is worth recalling German communist Karl Liebknecht’s revolutionary slogan — the main enemy is at home! He presciently observed in 1915:
The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.
If we are to fight against the powers and prerogatives of any nations and to have social equality for all, we must first link the struggle against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie across the globe with struggle against the Enemy within, that is, ‘my-country-first’ chauvinism.