A Parliamentary committee’s decision to formally summon a key World Health Organization adviser after the global body declined to let him testify is being attacked in China as an effort to find a scapegoat for COVID-19.
Last week, the House of Commons Health Committee voted to employ a rarely used power to summon WHO adviser Bruce Aylward after the global body wouldn’t allow him to speak to MPs on how it responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, which appeared first in China.
In a May 4 article, the Global Times, a nationalist newspaper run by China’s ruling Communist Party, called the Commons committee’s vote a bad-faith exercise, suggesting it is linked to the U.S. government’s trenchant criticism of how the WHO and China responded to the pandemic.
“Canada should end travesty of ‘WHO-bashing’ campaign,” is the headline of the article, which accuses Canada of “joining a chorus initiated by the U.S." to deflect attention from “mismanagement” of the fight against COVID-19.
The published criticism is at odds with Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu’s comments to The Canadian Press last week, when he gave Canada high marks for engaging in “cool-headed” co-operation during the pandemic, rather than “smearing his country” like the United States.
The Global Times article quotes Shen Yi, director of Fudan University’s Research Center for Cyberspace Governance, saying, “Canada is again becoming an accomplice in the U.S. ‘buck-passing’ campaign and scapegoating either WHO or China for its flawed handling of the epidemic."
Mr. Shen noted Canada’s COVID-19 fatality rate is currently higher than the rate published by China. “The coronavirus [has] struck a blow to their once vaunted ‘superior’ capabilities in responding to public health crises," he said of Canada. "The death rate from the coronavirus in Canada, higher than that of China, crushed their illusions and sense of superiority.”
Gordon Houlden, a former diplomat who is now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, said he detects a “good cop, bad cop” routine.
He said the Global Times article appears to be an attempt to “warn Canada not to take the U.S. line” on WHO and China, and noted that a second voice in the piece, not as prominent, plays down the significance of the committee’s summons. Qian Hao, director of the Canada Research Center at Shanghai International Studies University, says he doesn’t think the Canadian MPs are targeting China, but are “desperate for first-hand information.”
Canada isn’t the only U.S. ally to draw fire from the Global Times. Hu Xijin, the paper’s editor, recently responded to Australia’s calls for an inquiry into the source of COVID-19 by likening the country to “chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes."
The WHO faces questions about its relationship with China, and whether the organization properly notified and prepared the world for the coronavirus. Dr. Aylward earlier this year headed a WHO team that went to China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the pandemic, and praised China’s response, saying in February: “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.”
The April 30 committee vote to summon Dr. Aylward was supported by all parties. Under the terms of the motion, the summons will be issued once the committee learns that Dr. Aylward, a Canadian working out of Geneva for the WHO, is on Canadian soil.
The WHO defended its reluctance to let Dr. Aylward testify, saying it’s not normal for the organization to take part in such a hearing.
Matt Jeneroux, the Conservative health critic and vice-chair of the committee, who sponsored the motion to summon Dr. Aylward, said the government has repeatedly invoked the WHO as a source of guidance, and it makes sense that a Canadian working in an important post with the organization should explain what informed its thinking.
NDP health critic Don Davies, a member of the committee, said his interest in Dr. Aylward testifying has nothing to do with China or geopolitical issues. “From the outset, the Canadian government and public health agency relied explicitly on WHO guidance and information. They continue to do so. I would like to explore the basis of these,” he said.
“Second, the WHO also has members who are at different stages of this pandemic, in some cases, nations who are further along than Canada. As the global co-ordinating body, I would like to probe the experiences of these nations to help guide our actions.”