Taiwan demanded an apology Thursday from the World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus after he accused it of orchestrating personal racist attacks against him.
Tedros singled out the island democracy for special mention as he used a press briefing to call for the world to rally as one in the fight against the deadly spread of the Chinese coronavirus.
He spoke after U.S. President Donald Trump criticised the global health body and threatened to cut its funding, as Breitbart News reported.
During the press conference Tedros addressed the alleged abuse — including racial slurs — he claimed he had been subjected to since the public health crisis began.
Tedros largely avoided mentioning Trump by name but he did single out the government in self-governing Taipei, which has been largely ignored by WHO as directed by Beijing.
“Three months ago, this attack came from Taiwan,” he told reporters in Geneva, without offering any direct evidence.
“They didn’t disassociate themselves. They even started criticising me in the middle of all that insult and slur, but I didn’t care,” Tedros said.
The comments sparked anger in Taiwan, which described Tedros’ comments as “baseless”.
“Our country has never encouraged the public to launch personal attacks against him or made any racially discriminatory comments,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou told reporters on Thursday.
“Our government demands an immediate clarification and an apology from director-general Tedros over such extremely irresponsible act of slander,” she added.
Relations between the WHO and Taiwan have worsened considerably since the pandemic began, even as health experts have lauded Taiwan for its response to the virus.
Taiwanese health authorities have managed to contain the virus so effectively that there have so far been just 379 cases and five deaths in a country of around 24 million people, making it one of the lowest relative infection rates worldwide.
Taiwan has also been quick to point out China’s efforts to control the global narrative around the disease, claiming over 70 percent of fake news and disinformation related to the virus originates from China.
This was illustrated when WHO infamously tweeted out on January 14 a Chinese claim that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus:
Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China🇳. pic.twitter.com/Fnl5P877VG
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) January 14, 2020
Despite its proximity and cultural links to China, Taiwan also took direct action following the virus’s outbreak in Wuhan earlier this year, banning all arrivals from China, Hong Kong, and Macau.
The measures infuriated communist officials in Beijing, who continue to demand unification between the two countries in what is known as the “One China Policy.”
Taiwan used to be able to obtain observer status at the WHO’s annual assembly.
But diplomatic pressure from Beijing in recent years has pushed Taiwan out of major international bodies including the WHO and ICAO — the UN’s aviation agency.
China’s Communist Party regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and has vowed to one day seize the island — by force if necessary.
Beijing’s efforts to isolate the island have ramped up since the election of President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016 because does not view the island as part of a “one China”.
Critics of Tedros have accused the WHO under his leadership of being too close to Beijing and complimentary of China’s response to the coronavirus.
Tedros is a former Ethiopian health and foreign minister and the WHO’s first African leader.
He has long denied being partisan or holding any geopolitical bias while at the same time warning people against calling the virus “Chinese” or associating it with a region, despite the coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China.
China has tried to deflect blame for hiding and destroying early evidence of the coronavirus found in Wuhan as early as November. Some of its officials have claimed that U.S. soldiers brought it to Wuhan.
Ultimately Tedros sees himself as above any geopolitical squabbles despite singling out Taiwan for special attention.
“Please quarantine COVID politics. That’s what we want. We don’t care about personal attacks,” he said.
AFP contributed to this report