The federal government says it’s crucial that the World Health Organization carry out a post-pandemic investigation of its response to COVID-19, as questions mount over the global health body’s handling of this crisis.
The Department of Global Affairs published a summary of a discussion that International Development Minister Karina Gould had Monday with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
The government said Ms. Gould told Dr. Tedros how much Canada appreciated the “WHO’s leadership."
And then, it said, they talked about what should happen after the pandemic.
“Minister Gould and Dr. Tedros also discussed the critical need for a post-crisis after-action review that will be important to provide insights and learning to both member states and the WHO and support improvements to response and preparedness efforts in the future,” Global Affairs said. “Dr. Tedros affirmed the WHO’s commitment to full transparency and accountability.”
An after-action review is standard WHO practice for analyzing how it responded to an emergency, but the statement about the “critical need” for such a probe represents a shift in tone for Ottawa, which has closely followed the organization’s guidance during the outbreak and been reluctant to criticize its performance.
Amir Attaran, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of epidemiology and public health and its faculty of law, said more than a review is needed. He says the WHO should lose responsibility for “anything to do with pandemic preparedness or the declaration of health emergencies" – functions that should be transferred to another body.
The WHO is facing increasing questions about the its relationship with China and whether the organization properly notified and prepared the world for the virus. The WHO has defended its conduct, noting it alerted the public in early January. But the organization has refused to denounce China for concealing information about COVID-19, even after it became clear authorities had muzzled doctors.
MPs are still waiting to learn whether World Health Organization adviser Bruce Aylward will appear before the Commons health committee to answer questions regarding the WHO’s track record during the crisis.
Dr. Aylward, a Canadian epidemiologist who headed a WHO team to China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the virus, was scheduled to appear last week but cancelled on short notice. The explanation offered, according to the health committee clerk, is that he was “called upon unexpectedly to deal with an issue related to the pandemic response.”
After he cancelled, Dr. Aylward suggested the WHO could provide a statement for the committee instead.
MPs weren’t satisfied, however, and last week the Commons health committee sent the WHO adviser a letter inviting him to appear by teleconference with a proposed date of April 29. Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux, who is vice-chair of the committee, said the letter was “strongly worded.”
Mr. Jeneroux said it’s important for MPs to hear from Dr. Aylward because of how much Canada relied on the information from the WHO in the early weeks and months of the outbreak.
“We want to have him there to be able to defend himself and WHO,” Mr. Jeneroux said.
Mr. Jeneroux said he will push for the health committee to employ the rarely used parliamentary power to summon a witness if Dr. Aylward declines to appear.
The Conservative MP would also like Dr. Aylward to explain why the WHO has been shutting out Taiwan, which has outshone many countries in its fight against COVID-19, by barring it from participating in the organization even as an observer.
Dr. Aylward has praised China’s response to COVID-19, even telling a media briefing back in February: “If I had COVID-19 I’d want to be treated in China.”
He’s also been reluctant to answer questions about Taiwan. With a population of nearly 24 million, Taiwan has recorded 422 infections and only six deaths as of Monday. The first presumptive case of COVID-19 appeared in Taiwan the same day as one appeared in Canada.
Taiwan is not a member of the WHO because of the objections of China, which claims the democratic and separately ruled island as its own. That means Taiwan is excluded from emergency meetings and important global briefings for WHO members.
Mr. Jeneroux said he wants to ask about an incident last month where Dr. Aylward was being interviewed by a Hong Kong reporter and the WHO adviser declined to answer questions about Taiwan’s exclusion.
The WHO’s media relations team did not immediately respond when asked whether Dr. Aylward planned to appear before the parliamentary committee.
With a report from Reuters