Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will continue to support the World Health Organization even as U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to cancel his country’s membership in the UN agency. But Mr. Trudeau adds Ottawa will ask hard questions about China’s relationship with the global public-health body.
“No global institution is perfect, and there are obviously things we need to work on and things we need to improve,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters Tuesday, two days after Canada and dozens of other countries passed a resolution calling for an independent review of the WHO’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO is facing more and more questions about its relationship with China and whether the United Nations agency properly notified the world about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The WHO has defended its conduct, saying it issued an alert in early January. But the agency has refused to denounce China for concealing information about COVID-19 – even after it became clear authorities there had muzzled doctors and scientists.
China, meanwhile, is stepping up its support for the WHO even as Mr. Trump, who has already frozen U.S. contributions to the international body, is warning he may pull his country out. Chinese President Xi Jinping has announced Beijing will donate US$2-billion toward fighting the coronavirus, including deploying medical staff to developing countries – a pledge that could make China the leader in the campaign against the pandemic.
Asked if he was concerned about the size of China’s donation and the influence it might wield at the WHO, Mr. Trudeau said it required careful scrutiny. “There are always going to be reflections about the relationship between the largest donors to multilateral institutions and the functioning of those … institutions,” he said.
“We will have to be asking questions about the independence and strength of those organizations to be able to do the kinds of things that are absolutely necessary in keeping everyone around the world safe."
As for Beijing, he said: “There will be some real questions around China, of course, in the coming months and years that need to be answered, and we will be part of that.”
Mr. Trudeau has been cautious about criticizing China’s handling of the pandemic – but other Canadian public figures have not.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said last week that China must face a “great reckoning” for its conduct because it contributed to the spread and scale of the pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“The fact that China allowed people to fly around the world from Wuhan even when they blocked Wuhanese travellers from the rest of China must never be forgotten. [And there’s] the role they played in suppressing whistle-blowing scientists who as early as December were reporting human-to-human transmission,” he told a virtual meeting sponsored by the Canadian American Business Council.
Former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, a leading international champion of human rights, has said the world would have been far better prepared to handle the outbreak if Chinese Communist Party officials had not covered up early news of the virus. He has called for sanctions on Chinese officials who mistreated or silenced whistle-blowers, including medical staff and citizens.
Mr. Trump has accused the WHO of being too China-centric and has led international criticism of Beijing’s perceived lack of transparency in the early stages of the crisis.
“The United States pays them $450-million a year. China pays them $38-million a year. And they’re a puppet of China. They’re China-centric, to put it nicer, but they’re a puppet of China,” Mr. Trump told reporters at a White House event Monday.
The World Health Organization’s head said on Tuesday he would keep leading the global fight against the coronavirus pandemic, after Mr. Trump threatened to cut off funding and quit the body.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus defended the agency’s role after the United States again withheld full support for a resolution on the pandemic.
“We want accountability more than anyone,” Dr. Tedros told a virtual meeting of the WHO’S 194 member states. “We will continue providing strategic leadership to co-ordinate the global response.”
He welcomed a European Union resolution, adopted by consensus last weekend by the member states, that calls for an independent evaluation of the international response, “including, but not limited to, WHO’s performance.”
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, the highest level of alert, Dr. Tedros had urged countries against closing borders. “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.
In a parliamentary committee probing Canada’s response to COVID-19 on Tuesday, the Conservative Opposition devoted significant questioning to how heavily Ottawa relied on the WHO’s advice when reacting to the outbreak.
Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux pointed to comments Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam made in January where she said she didn’t support a travel ban and the WHO didn’t either, and she cited Canada’s legal duty to the WHO where “we’ll be called to account if we do anything different.” He asked her whether the international body’s view of when countries should have imposed bans has changed.
In response, Dr. Tam said the WHO is still recommending countries that take measures such as travel bans explain themselves, adding more than 100 countries have had to outline why they have enacted travel bans.
Mr. Jeneroux pointed to the non-essential travel advisory issued by Canada on March 16 and asked Dr. Tam whether she is concerned about being called out by the WHO or if she’s confident in the decision that was made.
“I think we are confident in having made a decision based on the evolving nature of the outbreak and the risk that it poses to Canadians,” she said, adding Canada explained its decision to the WHO.
With a report from Reuters
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.