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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14836

Mr SOMLYAY (12:50 PM) —When the parliament rose at the end of budget week, the death toll from SARS in Taiwan was 28. Today it is 72. I congratulate Taiwan on its achievements in the health care field in the last 50 years and on its willingness to use its knowledge and resources to assist countries less fortunate or those suffering from some form of disaster. Many of us have had the opportunity to visit Taiwan, which is an island roughly the size of Tasmania. It has a population of 23 million people, with the highest life expectancy in Asia. It had the first universal health insurance system in Asia, with 97 per cent coverage, and it has eradicated many infectious diseases. It is a physically and scientifically developed country with one physician for every 649 people, and 18,265 health care institutions.

Yet all these medical professionals and facilities have no access to the information and alerts to infection provided by the World Health Organisation. Because of politics, and only because of politics, Taiwan has been refused observer status in WHO. I stress that I am not talking about actual WHO membership for Taiwan, just non-voting observer status, contributing all the way to the development and dissemination of medical information. Exclusion even from the observer category means exclusion from all World Health Organisation information, including the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, the mechanism by which the WHO transmits reports of current outbreaks to, and receives reports from, professionals throughout the world.

Unfortunately the seriousness of this exclusion has been dramatically demonstrated to the world with the SARS outbreak. It took seven weeks from Taiwan's first request to WHO for scientific assistance before China agreed and WHO actually provided some assistance. How many people were endangered, infected or died because of that delay? The reality of today's globalisation means that those endangered during the delay were not just Taiwanese—it dramatically increased the world danger and therefore affected Australians.

We all know that there are political sensitivities involving China and Taiwan and that China insists that there be no political recognition of Taiwan as an independent state. I do not want to touch on those sensitivities today or in any way enter that debate. My proposal that Taiwan—as a health entity, not a country—be granted observer status with WHO has nothing whatever to do with politics but everything to do with world health and Australian health, because infection recognises neither political boundaries nor political agreements in a highly mobile world.

To grasp the repercussions of banning Taiwan—a major transport hub with 23 million people and a sophisticated health system—from access to WHO, let us look at a couple of statistics for 2002. Taiwan had 7.85 million outbound travellers; 2.19 million inbound travellers; 304,000 migrant workers from other parts of Asia; and, $US243 billion worth of foreign trade, including in animals, animal products and food. The data on these movements does not sit comfortably with the WHO executive board's determination in 2001, which said:

The globalisation of infectious diseases is such that an outbreak in one country is potentially a threat to the whole world.

Because Taiwan currently has no status with WHO, even as an observer, WHO ignored Taiwan's need for help with SARS. Politics got in the way of world health and world safety, and politics got in the way of the interests of the people. As Tommy G. Thompson said to the World Health Assembly on 19 May:

One lesson of SARS is that public health knows no border—and no politics.

While any loophole in the global network endangers the global community, disease is no longer the only imperative. Now the possibility of biological and chemical terrorism must also be considered in global health care.

Taiwan is already active in providing international assistance. That assistance includes El Salvador and Afghanistan and medical teams in a number of African countries. From 1995 to 2002, Taiwan donated $US120 million to medical and humanitarian aid in 78 countries. I firmly believe in this motion that Taiwan be allowed to participate as an observer in WHO. I want our people to be safe when they travel overseas or to Taiwan and I want the Taiwanese people to be safe.

The SPEAKER —Before I call for a seconder, let me point out to the member for Fairfax that I was in conversation with the Leader of the Opposition, as he may have observed. As a result I did not call on the member for Fairfax to move the motion.

Mr SOMLYAY —I move:

That this House calls on the Government to:

(1) congratulate Taiwan on its substantial achievements in the field of health and its many contributions to world health care;

(2) acknowledge that Taiwan's contributions to world health care could be made much more effectively and with much broader scope under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO);

(3) acknowledge the need for a fully-integrated global health care system and the undesirability of Taiwan's exclusion from this system, particularly in the light of the current Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome crisis;

(4) recognise therefore, that Taiwan's participation as an observer in the WHO would not only benefit the people of Taiwan, but also leave no loophole in the world health care network; and

(5) help Taiwan find appropriate and feasible ways to participate meaningfully in the WHO.

The SPEAKER —Is the motion seconded?

Mrs Crosio —I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.