Friday, February 22, 2013

Day #5: World Health Organisation Headquarters, Geneva, Switzerland

As the emergency in Taiwan intensified, the international community did what it does best when it comes to Taiwan — it isolated it even further. After confirming that secondary outbreaks had occurred outside the capital, the Presidential Office closed off the entirety of Taiwan proper from the rest of the world. All international flights, inbound and outbound cargo, as well as fishing operations outside a 12km radius of the island were cancelled. The Coast Guard Administration, with the assistance of the Ministry of National Defense, was ordered to ensure the self-imposed embargo was respected, and to use force if necessary.

The military also launched nationwide patrols, with orders to shoot on sight any person who displayed symptoms associated with the undead, instructions that inevitably led to a few unfortunate mishaps.

During an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, President Ma Ying-jeou was informed that based on strategic oil reserves, the quarantine would hold for about 30 days, whereupon the nation would grind to a halt. National Security Bureau Director Tsai Der-sheng, however, pointed out that oil consumption would drop dramatically if a large segment of the population were contaminated.

“Most zombies don’t drive cars,” he remarked, chuckling at his humor, only to be countered by an official from the Bureau of Energy, who asked Tsai whether undead employees were qualified to refine petrol. The two nearly came to blows, but were reminded that under the present circumstances, the living could ill afford to fight among themselves.

After the quarantine was announced, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had the unenviable job of explaining to other countries the reasons why their citizens, those who hadn’t already left, could not be evacuated. Most, once they were informed of the consequences if a single case slipped through controls, said they supported Taipei’s measures and hoped the matter would soon be resolved. The few foreign governments (Paris and Moscow among them) who insisted on evacuating their own had a sudden change of heart upon receiving pictures of the victims at Taipei 101.

As the NSC meeting concluded, it was decided to await the decisions made in Geneva, where the WHO convened its own emergency session. Because of its peculiar situation, Taiwan didn’t have a representative there (it could only send an observer once a year to attend the body’s decisionmaking body, the World Health Assembly, in May). Unfortunately for Taiwan, it wasn’t the month of May.

Following a tedious series of briefings given by bespectacled experts, a smaller group of representatives convened separately to discuss which strategy would best help Taiwan deal with the problem. The Chinese representative, in the past high-mindedly claiming that all things pertaining to Taiwan first had to go through Beijing as per the “one China” policy, kept an unusually low profile on that day. Asked if Beijing would be willing to send health officials to Taiwan, Mr. Gao shook his head, insisting that Taiwan wasn’t China’s problem.

“But isn’t Taiwan part of China,” one American asked in a thick Texan accent.

“Yes,” Gao replied.

“Then surely it is your government’s responsibility to provide whatever assistance is necessary to end the crisis,” a Canadian official remarked, adding that Ottawa had already offered to send a medical team if the request were made.

“You cannot do that,” Gao said. “Taiwan is part of China, and China can well take care of itself.”

“So you will send experts?” the red-haired American asked, believing they were finally making progress.

“No.”

Japan then offered to help, at which Gao uttered expletives that are not fit for print.

More debate ensued, with no way to break the deadlock. Foreign countries could send teams of medical experts to China, but they were strictly forbidden to send them directly to that (he used thick Chinese, which the few who were proficient in the language knew unkindly stood for something close to “ghost island”) Taiwan. Doing so would hurt the feelings of the 1.3 billion Chinese (give or take a few hundred million) and be a serious violation of China’s indivisible, unsplittable, sacred, blessed, 5,000-year-old, blah-blah-blah sovereignty. The representatives went back to their offices to call their respective governments back home, expecting to be given instructions to proceed despite Beijing’s hard-nosed opposition.

Lo and behold, to the man they were ordered not to lift a finger and to respect the wishes of the Chinese. As he left the building later that evening, a proud Gao walked past the glass doors at the main entrance of the building. On the other side, a small group of Taiwanese reporters, their press passes hanging round their necks, stood in anger, once again denied entry into the building.

So a decade after being abandoned during the SARS epidemic, Taiwan once again was left to fend for itself, ignored by the international community, which believed it could will the always-troublesome Taiwan out of existence. The problem will soon disappear. It always does, world leaders uttered with confidence, taking comfort in the notion that the 23 million people on the island were adrift in the Pacific.

Not this time it wouldn’t, as they were about to find out.

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