What does Canada think about China’s influence on the World Health Organization?

Updated: Mar 29

Policy Brief by Lily Huang. This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's third issue on Canada-China relations. The full issue is available here.

Introduction


China has been widely criticized for their mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. In December 2019, China withdrew information regarding early signs of the contagious virus from the World Health Organization, which delayed the world’s preparedness for the rapid spread of this pandemic [1]. The WHO consists of 194 Member States and works to combat communicable diseases and promote international health [2]. Many questions have arisen regarding China’s influence on the WHO and the organization’s transparency in reporting accurate data. The international community has called on Western governments to take action and hold China accountable for their suppression of information regarding COVID-19.


China’s Chernobyl Moment


In 1986, the government cover up of a nuclear plant meltdown in Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR, destroyed the Soviet Union’s international credibility [3]. China’s coverup of the COVID-19 crisis is referred to as “China’s Chernobyl Moment.” The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a non-partisan, national public think tank based in Ottawa, co-sponsored an open letter that urged Western governments to “engage in a critical evaluation of the impact of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] policies on the lives of Chinese citizens and citizens around the world,” [4]. More than one hundred China scholars and senior political figures have signed on to this letter to condemn China’s “Chernobyl Moment” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the letter states that the Chinese government influenced the WHO to minimize the severity of the issue. For example, it expressed how the WHO dismissed early alerts of the virus’ human-to-human transmission from Taiwanese health officers in late December 2019. The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa was quick to reprehend this letter [5]. Currently, Taiwan is excluded from the WHO, despite their early success in containing the virus and limiting the number of cases and deaths in the state, due to pressure from the Chinese government [6]. When Canada and its allies tried to allow Taiwan access to the WHO as a non-state observer to participate in the organization’s meetings, the Chinese government strongly opposed this move. Taiwan is a democratic country technically within the People’s Republic of China; therefore, the Chinese government fears that it will use the current pandemic situation to their advantage and become an independent, sovereign state [7].


International Violations


China has violated both Article Six and Seven of the International Health Regulations (IHR) from the World Health Organization. Article Six states that each state shall inform the WHO regarding a public health emergency and its response within 24 hours of assessment. Public health information including laboratory results and the number of cases and deaths should also be recorded [8]. Article Seven states that each state has a duty to relay relevant public health information to WHO for any “unexpected or unusual public health event within its territory, irrespective of origin or source” [9]. Due to these violations, former President Donald Trump terminated the United States’ relationship with the WHO in May 2020. Trump calls the WHO “very China centric,” and that it “seems to err always on the side of China,” [10]. Additionally, he blames the virus for causing over 100,000 deaths in Americans [11]. Under the IHR dispute settlement mechanism, any state within the WHO can allege legal claims against China to seek damages for the breach of WHO regulations under customary international law. For these proceedings to move forward, China must consent to appear before an international tribunal; however, no state in the WHO has asserted these claims against China.


Canada’s Response


As the United States severed ties with the WHO, many carefully watched the Canadian government’s next steps. International Development Minister Karina Gould states that it is not WHO’s responsibility to question China as the “WHO is a product of its member states, and [...] that each member state can push for openness and for transparency” [12]. As a result, Canada co-sponsored an EU-led resolution to investigate WHO's handling of the pandemic through an independent and comprehensive review at the earliest appropriate time. The Chinese Government expressed support for this review and promised $2 billion USD to combat COVID-19 over the next two years [13]. Gould adds that she believes the WHO has “provided the most accurate and up-to-date information it has access to,” and that “WHO’s response isn’t going to be perfect because the virus is so new,” [14]. The current Canada-China relationship is politically sensitive due to Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and China’s retaliation by imprisoning Canadians Michael Kovrig and Micahel Spavor. Consequently, Canada has made no public statements condemning China’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis nor its influence on the WHO.

  1. Mendes, Errol Patrick, Marcus Kolga, and Sarah Teich. 2020. “China was in violation of International Health Regulations. What do we do now?” Macleans. Last modified May 3, 2020, https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/china-was-in-violation-of-international-health-regulations-what-do-we-do-now/

  2. World Health Organization. N.d. “About WHO.” https://www.who.int/about

  3. Nuttall, Jeremy, and Joanna Chiu. 2020. “Concerns about China’s influence don’t end at the WHO, experts say. They’re calling for sweeping reviews of international bodies.” Toronto Star. Last modified April 15, 2020, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2020/04/14/concerns-about-chinas-influence-dont-end-at-the-who-experts-say-theyre-calling-for-sweeping-reviews-of-international-bodies.html

  4. Macdonald Laurier Institute. 2020. “Experts Say Chinese Government COVID-19 Cover -up is a Chernobyl Moment.” Last modified April 14, 2020, www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/experts-say-chinese-government-covid-19-cover-chernobyl-moment/

  5. Mendes, Errol Patrick, Marcus Kolga, and Sarah Teich. 2020. “China was in violation of International Health Regulations. What do we do now?” Macleans. Last modified May 3, 2020, https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/china-was-in-violation-of-international-health-regulations-what-do-we-do-now/

  6. Macdonald Laurier Institute. 2020. “Experts Say Chinese Government COVID-19 Cover -up is a Chernobyl Moment,” Last modified April 14, 2020, www.macdonaldlaurier.ca/experts-say-chinese-government-covid-19-cover-chernobyl-moment/

  7. Mike Blanchfield. 2020. “China pushes back against efforts by Canada, to get Taiwan access at WHO.” Last modified May 11, 2020, https://www.cp24.com/news/china-pushes-back-against-efforts-by-canada-to-get-taiwan-access-at-who-1.4934740?cache=%3FclipId%3D68597

  8. World Health Organization. 2008. “International Health Regulations (2005) Second Edition.” https://www.who.int/ihr/9789241596664/en/

  9. World Health Organization. 2008. “International Health Regulations (2005) Second Edition.” https://www.who.int/ihr/9789241596664/en/

  10. Shah, Maryam. 2020. “Coronavirus: Trump terminates relationship with World Health Organization.” Global News. Last modified May 29, 2020. https://globalnews.ca/news/7004071/trump-world-health-organization-china/

  11. Ibid.

  12. Haws, Emily and Vassy Kapelos. 2020. “Not WHO’s place to be skeptical of China, says international development minister.” Last modified May 18, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/not-who-s-place-to-be-skeptical-of-china-says-international-development-minister-1.5574846

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.