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People wear face masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19 as they ride on a bus in Taipei.Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press

Taiwan is donating half a million masks to Canada, expressing hope that some can be used to protect Indigenous communities, as the self-ruled island tries to counter the Chinese government’s effort to isolate it during the pandemic.

Taiwan, a democracy of more than 23 million people, has been prevented from taking part in World Health Organization activities to fight COVID-19 because of Beijing, which regards the jurisdiction as a renegade province.

The island has proven extremely successful at containing COVID-19, with just 429 infections and six deaths as of Tuesday, and this has left it in a position to extend medical assistance to other countries.

Taiwan’s donation of medical supplies to Canada is the latest in a string of gifts from Taipei to other jurisdictions, from the United States to Japan to the European Union, as the island practises what’s being called “mask diplomacy.”

Of the 500,000 surgical-grade masks shipped to Canada, 400,000 are earmarked for the Canadian Red Cross to distribute, and another 50,000 destined for Ontario, 25,000 to British Columbia and 25,000 to Alberta. Canada’s Public Health Agency is testing them now.

There are no strings attached to the donations, but the “Taiwan can help” labels printed on the mask boxes are evidence that the Taipei government wants to work with foreign governments if they are receptive.

Taiwan, which is not recognized as a sovereign state by most countries, including Canada, has been increasingly isolated in recent years as China steps up pressure on its remaining diplomatic allies.

David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China who also served as an envoy in Taiwan, said the island’s accomplishment in keeping COVID-19 at bay – after measures such as early border controls, widespread use of masks and digital tracking of quarantined individuals – is helping to roll back its isolation from the world.

“Just as China and other countries are using their response to tell a story about itself, Taiwan is too,” he said. “I think this has created an opening for Taiwan and generated sympathy for Taiwan.”

He said while both China and Taiwan have succeeded in containing the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Taiwan has demonstrated this can be accomplished without draconian lockdowns.

“One of the things China has been saying is their system of governance gives it a unique capability to deal with pandemics, but here we have a democracy that is in many ways the opposite of China doing an equally good, if not better job, all the while being a political democracy with a free press,” Mr. Mulroney said.

Winston Wen-yi Chen, Taiwan’s representative in Canada, said his government hoped that Indigenous communities in Canada, in particular, might be able to make use of the gifted masks.

He also said Taiwan will not give up trying to gain access to World Health Organization meetings. “The only way to fight this terrible virus is to unite together and you can’t leave anyone behind,” Mr. Chen said. “Taiwan is still excluded from the international health community, which is not fair and unjust. Taiwan will continue to work with like-minded countries including Canada.”

In response to Taiwan’s comments and donations Tuesday, the Chinese embassy in Canada said “it goes without saying we should all help each other out with the spreading pandemic,” adding it hopes the Taiwan assistance being offered is genuine without “political calculations behind it.”

Asked about Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, the embassy repeated early April statements by a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, saying: “WHO members must be sovereign countries.”

The embassy said there are ways for the “Taiwan region” to participate in the WHO’s technical discussions as long as it accepts “the precondition of the one-China principle,” meaning there is only one sovereign state: the People’s Republic of China.

Finally, it said there is a “contact point” set up for Taiwan to gain access to WHO information on global public-health emergencies including notifications.

Taiwan has previously said these constrained options do not represent full and meaningful participation in the WHO.

The Canadian government, which has publicly called for Taiwan to regain observer status at the WHO, thanked the island on Tuesday.

“We salute the innovative and timely actions taken by Taiwan to control the spread of the virus,” the Canadian government’s office in Taipei said in a post on its Facebook page. “

Taiwan was for the first time permitted to join the WHO as an observer in 2009 and participated in meetings until 2016. This changed, however, following the election of lawyer and professor Tsai Ing-wen, a proponent of clear independence from mainland China. Since 2017, Taiwan has been excluded from WHO meetings and communications.

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