IF TIMING matters, then the World Health Organization's rejection this week of Taiwan's bid to join it as an "observer" is particularly egregious - and unhealthy for the entire world.
In a sense, there's not much new here. This was the seventh straight year that China blocked a move by Taiwan to participate in the United Nations' health agency. China, of course, claims Taiwan as one of its provinces, and as a result the island lost its United Nations seat more than 30 years ago and few nations now recognize it as a state - despite a half-century of separate rule on either side of the Taiwan Strait.
But Monday's vote at the annual World Health Assembly in Geneva came as the SARS epidemic - reportedly showing signs of abating in parts of mainland China - has been worsening at an alarming rate on Taiwan, providing a lethal example of the island's need for the WHO's resources.
Since the beginning of last month, Taiwan has tallied more than 380 probable cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome and more than 50 deaths, a reported per capita incidence far greater than mainland China's. Because of the epidemic, some Taiwanese hospitals have seen mass staff resignations and have had to shut services.
Taiwan's exclusion from the WHO means the world's main health organization normally isn't represented on the island. A few weeks ago, as SARS cases began to multiply on Taiwan, China allowed some WHO staff to go to Taipei as a "humanitarian" gesture.
But when it came to this week's WHO vote, Beijing did not relent.
The United States supported Taiwan's bid more strongly than in the past and both Congress and the European Parliament passed resolutions favoring it, but China's clout and Taiwan's relatively slim diplomatic ties meant the outcome was predictable.
Cross-strait geopolitics demands that Taiwan can't be accepted as a full WHO member. But the semantic fiction of "observer" status - like the political fiction of "one China" - would provide a practical solution and long-term public health benefits for the island and the rest of the world.
There's ample precedent for this: Palestine, for example, is a WHO observer. Moreover, Taiwan - claiming an economy larger than Russia's, and as one of the world's major traders - belongs to some international organizations as, say, a "trade entity."
SARS has reminded the world's nations of how tightly bound they are. Particularly in this day of rapid and extensive air travel, diseases don't recognize national boundaries or political contrivances. The 23 million people in Taiwan's highly developed society - a larger population than those of many WHO member nations - need its help.
Having badly bungled the initial outbreak of SARS with a cover-up, China continues to err - and to hurt the Taiwanese people - by holding so strictly to worn principles that, in this case, don't meet the world's needs.