International Development Minister Karina Gould says it is not the World Health Organization’s place to question China, arguing that the organization tasked with global public health is a product of its member states, who in turn should be pushing for transparency.
The comments come as the WHO continues to face questions related to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with China. U.S. President Donald Trump has led that charge, temporarily withholding funding from the organization.
Earlier today, the head of the WHO promised an independent review of the global response, saying it would start as soon as possible. China signalled its support of that review today, and has promised $2 billion US over two years to fight COVID-19, especially in developing countries.
When asked by Power & Politics host Vassy Kapelos if the WHO should be more skeptical of China, Gould said she wasn’t sure if that was its role.
“I’m not sure that that’s the place for the WHO, because the WHO is a product of its member states, and I think that each member state can push for openness and for transparency,” she said. “One of the things that we’re doing with the World Health Assembly this week is continuing to raise that issue … in terms of what we expect other member states to do in terms of providing information and data.”
Gould said she believes the WHO has provided the most accurate and up-to-date information it has had access to, and that one of the challenges of a multilateral organization is that every member state collects data differently. The WHO is reliant on its member states to provide information, she said.
The WHO’s response isn’t going to be perfect, she added, because the virus is so new.
Dr. David Naylor, a key member of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, told Power & Politics in April that the WHO had too much confidence in Chinese data.
“I think they were a little too deferential. They knew from SARS-1 that there had been problems with incomplete reporting,” he said on April 23.
Chinese officials have denied covering up any COVID-19 cases, insisting that the data has been accurate and timely.
Garnett Genuis, the Conservative critic for Canada-China Relations, said that if the WHO is aware it is receiving incorrect information from member countries, it should be transparent about it.
“The WHO exists to strategically advance the health of people around the world, not to uncritically regurgitate bad numbers,” he said in an emailed statement. “It is odd for the Trudeau government to suggest on the one hand that the WHO is not to be held accountable for bad data that it shares, and yet also that we should follow its advice uncritically.”
Genius said that it’s been well established that the Chinese government has suppressed information, but the Canadian government has failed to address it.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said May 13 that there would be questions “particularly” for China around the origins and behaviour in the early days of the pandemic.
Earlier today, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus promised an independent review of the global coronavirus response would be launched “at the earliest appropriate moment.” He made the comments at the virtual meeting of the World Health Assembly, which is the governing body of the WHO.
Gould said that she had a “good and frank conversation” with Tedros last week, where she said Canada supports the WHO’s work but that it expects there to be a thorough examination afterward in order to better prepare for future pandemics.
Gould said the review should start once the world is out of “the acute emergency and crisis period.”
“Once we see the number of cases start to significantly decrease worldwide, that’s when we can start to turn our attention to how the response went and the aftereffects,” Gould said. “We’re really not there right now because we’re still very much in the midst of the crisis.”
Genuis said an independent investigation regarding COVID-19 will be very important, and can’t be done “under the auspices of the WHO.” It should include a probe into the WHO’s response, as well as of Chinese government influence within the organization, he said.
Canada should be playing a role in pushing for a truly independent investigation, he said.