To thinking, breathing, moderately informed Canadians, it has been almost insulting to endure Health Minister Patty Hajdu’s anemic defences of China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past several weeks. It hasn’t simply been that her claims are incorrect – which they are – but that Ms. Hajdu has offered them with such unflagging confidence, as if she is sure the Canadians listening to her statements couldn’t possibly know any better.
On April 2, the minister was asked by a journalist about reports that China had misled the world on its coronavirus numbers. Ms. Hajdu, who seemed almost annoyed by the question, replied that there was “no indication that the data that came out of China in terms of their infection rate and their death rate was falsified in any way.” She then accused the journalist of feeding into online conspiracy theories.
Here’s what we knew at the time. China had detained and punished whistle-blowers – including Dr. Li Wenliang, who eventually died of COVID-19 – for sounding the alarm in the early days of the outbreak. Lines of urns reportedly stacked up outside Wuhan funeral homes, when relatives were permitted to pick up family members’ ashes in March, appeared to eclipse the Chinese government’s official number of COVID-19 deaths. Bloomberg reported that U.S. intelligence had concluded that China intentionally under-reported its numbers. And China itself acknowledged that it hadn’t been counting asymptomatic positive cases in its overall infection numbers.
That’s not information gleaned in hindsight. That’s what we knew at the time.
Weeks on, Ms. Hajdu is again defending both her own remarks on Beijing’s response, as well as China’s actions in the early days of the outbreak. Asked by CBC’s Vassy Kapelos this week if she stood by her statements from April 2, Ms. Hajdu responded as if none of the information about China’s data distortion was known when she accused a Canadian reporter of feeding into online conspiracy theories.
“It is difficult to gather accurate data when you’re in the middle of an outbreak,” Ms. Hajdu said.
“I am always open to new information and new evidence,” she added. As if thinking, breathing, moderately informed Canadians wouldn’t know that, actually, we had plenty of information at the time.
Also this week, CTV’s Evan Solomon asked Ms. Hajdu if she was wrong for praising China months ago for being “very open” in its early disclosure.
Ms. Hajdu responded: “The praise I offered China in the early days was based on their historic containment efforts. Don’t forget there were millions and millions of Chinese people under essentially confinement, if you will, for a very long time.”
Here’s what we know about those historic containment efforts. For one, they came too late; had China alerted the public six days earlier, according to an analysis by the Associated Press, the scale of the outbreak could have been dramatically reduced. Once in lockdown, the state tasked grid workers in Wuhan with monitoring and snitching on citizens. Some residents were physically barricaded in their communities. Critics and whistle-blowers kept disappearing. And now, China appears to be capitalizing on the distraction offered by other countries’ own COVID-19 outbreaks to renew its crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
So no, a Canadian minister should not be defending “praise” for this regime, despite how clever a spin her communications team thinks it has found. Indeed, to do so is to insult the intelligence of Canadians who clearly know better, and to disregard the plight of Chinese citizens suffering under the foot of an oppressive regime.
There is, of course, reason for Canada’s government to tread carefully in its comments on China at the moment. We continue to source critical supplies, including medical equipment, from Chinese warehouses to keep up with domestic demand. We’ve seen the effect that retaliatory measures from Beijing can have on Canadian agricultural sectors, including canola and pork. China has already threatened Australia with economic consequences for daring to push for a probe into China’s handling of COVID-19. So as much as China’s Communist Party might deserve the ultimate censure, it is defensible to argue that – for practical reasons only – now might not be the ideal time to offer it.
But treading carefully is not the same as Canada’s Health Minister effectively trying to gaslight her own citizens about the conduct of a habitually oppressive and untruthful regime. We know Beijing tried to cover up the outbreak. We know its numbers are incorrect. We know it used repressive tactics to silence whistle-blowers. Canadian officials can acknowledge the obvious, while still insisting we focus on acute domestic problems for now.
Ms. Hajdu’s enduring defence of her comments on China speaks only to her impressions of the credulity of the Canadian public. We can’t expect Beijing to tell us the truth. But we can – and should – expect that of our own government.
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