The World Health Organization is balking at a Canadian parliamentary committee’s request for key WHO adviser Bruce Aylward to testify before MPs and explain the global body’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matt Jeneroux, Conservative health critic and one of the vice-chairs of the House of Commons health committee, said he plans to seek support from other parties to take the request to the next level. He said he will propose the committee try to compel testimony from the Canadian epidemiologist by employing a rarely used power of summons.
“We want this committee to be taken seriously. Dr. Aylward is a key figure in a lot of this and this committee has been tasked with understanding the response to COVID-19,” Mr. Jeneroux said.
Don Davies, NDP health critic and another member of the committee, said he would support issuing a summons.
“I’m disappointed in the WHO’s position, especially considering we are seeking information from a Canadian official,” Mr. Davies said. “Their officials should be transparent and accountable to the nations they serve.”
House of Commons committees have the power to summon a person to appear as a witness, although that power is limited to individuals on Canadian soil. That means a summons could be served on them when they arrived in Canada.
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 new invitation, asking him to testify by teleconference on April 29. The committee had already warned the WHO that it would be willing to summon him.
However, Mr. Jeneroux said Sigrid Kranawetter, principal legal counsel at the World Health Organization, informed the committee that Dr. Aylward would not be appearing but that the committee could send written questions to the global body.
On Wednesday, the WHO echoed this message. Asked whether Dr. Aylward would testify, the body indicated he would not. “Over the past weeks, WHO has received requests for information from several different governments, parliamentary bodies and officials,” spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “With a view to facilitating the work of the committee, WHO has offered to consider any list of technical questions from the committee.”
Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, who chairs the Commons health committee, said it will be up to members of the committee to decide on whether to summon Dr. Aylward. He said while he is keen to hear testimony from a representative of the WHO, he will however encourage MPs to accept the WHO’s offer of making written responses to questions.
The WHO is facing increasing questions about its relationship with China and whether the organization properly notified and prepared the world for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 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.
The WHO’s Dr. Aylward 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 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.
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.
Canada has called for Taiwan to be granted observer status at the WHO – an urging that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland repeated Wednesday. “Canada believes Taiwan’s role as an observer in the WHO assembly meetings is in the interests of the international health community,” she told the Commons.
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, the global body’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus 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.
With files from Bill Curry in Ottawa
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