Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada will “continue to support” the World Health Organization (WHO) as the agency again finds itself in the crosshairs of U.S. President Donald Trump over its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Tuesday, Trudeau was asked to respond to Trump’s threat, issued in an open letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and posted online Monday, to permanently cut U.S. funding to WHO unless the agency commits to “substantive improvements” in the next 30 days.
Watch: Trump reveals he is taking anti-malaria drug
Trump froze U.S. funding to the United Nations’ health agency in April, claiming the WHO promoted China’s “disinformation” about the novel coronavirus. The U.S. provides about $450 million in funding each year.
In his letter, Trump said the WHO has shown “an alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China,” which he has accused of under-reporting the severity of the pandemic to the body. He also claimed the WHO has been “curiously insistent” on praising China for its transparency.
Trudeau said Canada continues to believe multilateral institutions such as the WHO are extremely important, particularly during a global health crisis.
Still, “no global institution is perfect,” the prime minister said.
“We will continue to support the WHO, even as we look for improvements to our multilateral systems,” Trudeau said.
A reporter noted that China’s President Xi Jinping has pledged $2 billion to the WHO to fight the pandemic, and asked Trudeau if such a large funding commitment sets off alarm bells about the country’s influence.
“I think there are always going to be reflections about the relationships between the largest donors to multilateral institutions and the functioning of those multilateral institutions,” Trudeau said.
There are questions to be asked about the “independence and the strength” of organizations tasked with keeping the world safe, he said.
“There will be some real questions around China, of course, in the coming months and years that need to be answered,” he said. “And we will be part of that.”
The response is in line with what the prime minister told reporters last month when asked about a report from Bloomberg News that U.S. officials had warned the White House that China concealed the extent of its coronavirus outbreak from the rest of the world.
Trudeau said at the time that while there will be opportunities for reflection later on over “who did well, who didn’t do as well, and who was perhaps not as forthcoming with the global community as they should have been,” his immediate focus was on keeping Canadians safe.
Canada was among dozens of countries represented at the World Health Assembly Monday that supported calls for an independent review into how the WHO managed the global response to the pandemic. China also says it supports the investigation.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters that his party believes the WHO must be “open and accountable” for the decisions it has made.
“We don’t want to jump to conclusions, but there is ample evidence for Canadians to be concerned about the internal dynamics of the WHO and the accuracy of the information coming out of the WHO,” Scheer said. “And that needs to be addressed.”
Scheer also called out the exclusion of Taiwan, which China sees as a rogue, breakaway province, from meetings at the World Health Assembly this week. Canada, the U.S., and six other allies advocated for Taiwan’s inclusion in the meetings, pointing to the island’s success stemming from the spread of COVID-19.
‘WHO is what we member states make it’: Tam
“Taiwan being excluded from organizations like the WHO does not help anybody,” Scheer said. “China’s foreign policy should not have so much influence on other organizations that the people of Taiwan are excluded from the participation.”
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam was also asked, at a separate news conference in Ottawa Tuesday, to weigh in on the criticism levelled against the WHO.
Tam, who has served as an international expert on WHO committees, said that while there are lessons to be learned for all organizations grappling with an unprecedented pandemic, now is a time for global collaboration.
“I think the WHO is what we member states make it. We can make it stronger, better, as part of our international response to future pandemics,” she said. “But there is no doubt that all of us have something to learn.”
Tam was also asked to comment on Trump’s revelation that he has been taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure against coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government officials that doing so could be unsafe and ineffective.
Tam said that while everybody is looking for answers and solutions, hydroxychloroquine is still being studied at clinical trials.
Earlier, Trudeau would not say what he thinks about Trump taking the drug.
“I will continue to follow advice of medical professionals and implore every Canadian to follow the best advice of our medical health experts,” Trudeau said.
With files from The Canadian Press, Althia Raj