Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says now is not the time for him to raise questions about other countries’ management of the coronavirus pandemic even as some Western allies air concerns about China, where the outbreak began.
China is facing increasing scrutiny over whether it concealed the full extent of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and on Friday revised its virus death toll, adding 1,290 to the total.
Dominic Raab, the British foreign affairs minister, who is deputizing for Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he recovers from COVID-19, said this week China will have to answer hard questions on how the coronavirus outbreak happened and whether it could have been prevented. He told reporters it will not be “business as usual” with China once the pandemic ends.
Mr. Trudeau, pressed by reporters on Friday to say whether he felt the revised number of deaths from China was evidence Beijing had been covering up the full extent of the COVID-19 damage, declined to directly answer – and did not mention China.
“We need to look carefully at the numbers that are shared by different countries around the world,” he told reporters in French. “Certainly … there will be conclusions to be drawn in the end regarding the behaviour of different countries, but for the moment, we must work together, collaborate and do everything we can to learn and better protect our citizens at home."
The Prime Minister was asked why he is reluctant to question China’s handling of the outbreak when politicians in other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France, are doing so.
He said now is not the time for criticism but for international co-operation – and suggested one concern is ensuring Canadians get the protective equipment they need. Ottawa and the provinces are looking to China for medical supplies.
“My job right now is to make sure that Canadians get the best support, the best protection and are able to get through this as best we possibly can," Mr. Trudeau said. "That means getting the equipment we need, that means ensuring the co-operation and the collaboration on the international stage is done properly. That means focusing right now on today and tomorrow on how we are going to keep Canadians safe.
“There will be plenty of time to point fingers, to ask questions, to draw conclusions” after the crisis is over, he said. “There may even be consequences for some countries depending on how they behaved during this global crisis.”
Mr. Trudeau did not answer when asked if he was saying that one reason not to criticize China is to ensure it does not cut off shipments of medical supplies.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called Canada’s reliance on China for vital goods such as ventilators and personal protective equipment a “symptom of a very serious problem” and said its time for “a complete re-evaluation of our relationship with China.”
He said Canada didn’t properly amass critical supplies through the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, and took issue with the fact that domestic supply chains took weeks to come online.
“It’s now time to discuss having a national strategy to ensure that in times of crisis we [do] not depend on a country such as China and a government such as China’s,” Mr. Scheer said in French.
He also noted that former Canadian ambassadors to China are “calling out this government’s approach to China” and that the Conservatives agree with their assessment.
One former envoy, David Mulroney, said Canada appears “increasingly out of step" when allies are expressing reservations about China’s lack of transparency. “We seem unable or unwilling to make the same declaration,” he said.
“We’re still locked in this tendency to speak only in praiseworthy language, only to praise what China is doing, rather than speak honestly about what is happening.”
Two weeks ago, Health Minister Patty Hajdu accused a journalist of fueling conspiracy theories when she was asked at a daily Ottawa media briefing whether she trusts China’s statistics, and how Canada can be sure its pandemic modelling is accurate if Beijing has under-reported.
Mr. Mulroney said he believes the Canadian government is worried about retaliation from China.
“I think they are genuinely afraid of China, and therefore flattery is their default position.”
Guy Saint-Jacques, another former Canadian ambassador to China, is calling for an international investigation into the World Health Organization’s (WHO) handling of this pandemic to determine why the WHO has been far less tough on China than it was during the SARS epidemic of 2003. The WHO vocally criticized Chinese leaders for covering up the initial spread of the virus that caused SARS. The organization has refused to denounce China for concealing information about COVID-19, even after it became clear authorities had muzzled doctors.
China’s health authority said on Friday that the country’s total coronavirus death toll was revised up to 4,632 from 3,342 after the release of new data from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission, said at a media briefing that China had also raised the total number of cases of infection by the end of April 16 to 82,692, up from 82,367.
In an interview published in Friday’s Financial Times, French President Emmanuel Macron rejected the idea that China handled the coronavirus outbreak better than Western democracies did.
The Financial Times quoted him as saying countries where information flows freely and citizens can criticize their governments cannot be compared to those where the truth has been suppressed.
“Given these differences, the choices made and what China is today, which I respect, let’s not be so naive as to say it’s been much better at handling this,” Mr. Macron said. “We don’t know. There are clearly things that have happened that we don’t know about.”
With a report from Reuters