A parliamentary committee has voted to employ a rarely used power to summon key World Health Organization adviser Bruce Aylward after the global body declined to allow him to testify before MPs on how it responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Commons health committee on Thursday voted unanimously in favour of a motion to call Dr. Aylward to appear before the committee. MPs for the Liberals, Conservatives, Bloc Québécois and NDP all backed it.
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 back on Canadian soil.
The WHO is facing questions about its relationship with China and whether the organization properly notified and prepared the world for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Matt Jeneroux, the Conservative health critic and vice-chair of the committee who sponsored the motion, said the Canadian government has repeatedly invoked the WHO as a source of guidance that informed the decisions it made to protect Canada and it makes sense that a Canadian working in a key WHO post should explain what informed the organization’s thinking.
Dr. Aylward, who headed a WHO team to China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the pandemic, was scheduled to testify before MPs two weeks ago but cancelled on short notice, citing an urgent matter related to COVID-19. MPs on the Commons health committee then sent a second invitation, asking him to testify by teleconference on April 29. A lawyer for the WHO then informed the committee that it would not make him available but would be willing to answer written questions.
NDP health critic Don Davies, a member of the Commons committee, noted that Dr. Aylward has taken the time to conduct media interviews during the outbreak. “Clearly he has been willing, and the WHO has been willing, to make Dr. Aylward available to answer questions to the media so I don’t see any principled reason why they would not make [him] available to this committee to answer similar questions,” Mr. Davies said.
“Canada is a member of the WHO and I think the WHO ought to operate with accountability and transparency to its members.”
House of Commons committees have the power to summon a person to appear as a witness, although power for enforcement is limited to individuals who are physically in Canada.
If Dr. Aylward were to refuse this summons, the health committee could report to the House of Commons and ask the full chamber to find the unwilling witness in contempt of Parliament. There are precedents for the Speaker of the House of Commons to issue a warrant for the apprehension of a witness, but former Commons law clerk Rob Walsh said the process normally ends up as a form of censure, where someone balking at testifying is in effect publicly chastised for not appearing.
Mr. Walsh said Dr. Aylward is not at risk of being put in jail should he ignore the summons, but it could result in an “embarrassing situation for himself and his organization.”
The WHO has faced criticism for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including from U.S. President Donald Trump, who said in mid-April he would suspend funding to the world body pending a review.
In late January, even after Chinese authorities locked down Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 first came to public attention and the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries not to limit travel. “There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” he said. Some countries, including Canada, followed the advice, waiting another seven weeks to ban foreign travellers.
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 there had muzzled doctors.
In an e-mail to the Commons health committee this week, responding to the second invitation for Dr. Aylward to testify, a WHO lawyer said it’s not normal practice for the organization to take part in such a hearing.
“As an intergovernmental organization vested with certain immunities and in order to protect its impartiality and objectivity, WHO or its officials do not normally participate in hearings held by parliamentary bodies of its member states nor take part in inquiries held by them,” WHO lawyer Derek Walton wrote.
The organization’s “single-minded focus” right now is co-ordinating the international response to an “unprecedented global health emergency," he said. “WHO is not in a position to authorize the participation of a WHO representative in the planned hearing at this point in time and under the current circumstance,” Mr. Walton wrote.
Dr. Peter Singer, a special adviser to Dr. Tedros, defended the global body’s record Thursday after questions were raised about what he called the “speed and effectiveness of our response.”
In a column published by The Globe and Mail, Dr. Singer praised what he called Dr. Tedros’s “calm and principled” leadership and said the WHO acted promptly.
He said the WHO picked up first indications of concern on Dec. 31 – “with reports of a cluster of pneumonia cases” – and “within five days” had warned countries and the public of the situation. Within 10 days, it issued a comprehensive package of official public health guidance, Dr. Singer said. On Jan. 22, Dr. Tedros convened an emergency committee of experts and the next week led a high-level visit to China. On Jan. 30, the WHO declared “public health emergency of international concern” – the highest level of global alert – when there were fewer than 100 cases of the virus outside China, he noted.
Dr. Aylward, for his part, has has praised China’s response to COVID-19, even telling a media briefing in February: “If I had COVID-19, I’d want to be treated in China.”
The Conservatives' Mr. Jeneroux would 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.
Mr. Jeneroux said he wants to ask about an incident in March where Dr. Aylward was being interviewed by a Hong Kong reporter and the WHO adviser declined to answer questions about Taiwan’s exclusion.
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