It is quite likely the case that China has not been completely open and transparent about the extent of its COVID-19 outbreak. It’s also the case that such matters are not necessarily relevant in the immediacy of Canada’s efforts to contain its own outbreak.
So while Canada doesn’t need to go out of its way to pick a fight with China at the moment, it’s also reasonable to expect our political leaders to avoid parroting the official Chinese line. The Chinese government is certainly trying to shape a narrative around the origins of this outbreak and Canada needs to avoid being a party to that in any way.
Separate reports from this past week suggest that U.S. intelligence has come to the conclusion that China has significantly understated the size of the outbreak, in terms of both the total number of cases and the number of deaths. This is on top of what we already know about how the Chinese government punished and silenced whistleblowers and suppressed news and social media posts about the virus in the early days of the outbreak.
In other words, the conclusions of U.S. intelligence probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The question now, though, is what to do with that information. I happen to subscribe to the view that China bears much responsibility for this pandemic and at some point there’s going to have to be some reckoning about that.
China’s attempts to portray itself as the heroes of the COVID-19 response and its attempts to raise doubts about the origins of the outbreak are clearly part of a broader effort to avoid any sort of accountability.
We shouldn’t let them get away with it. Unfortunately, while the prime minister managed to avoid giving China’s propaganda efforts a boost, the same cannot be said of Canada’s health minister.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked about the U.S. intelligence report, he responded by saying, “Obviously, there will be many questions as this is worked through in the coming months — what country did what, how they managed (the COVID-19 pandemic) and if some countries were not honest with the global community.”
All things considered, it was a reasonable answer. Again, the main focus right now is on ensuring that Canada does everything it can to keep this pandemic under control.
When the question was put to Health Minister Patty Hadju, though, the response was much different. Rather than defer to Trudeau’s response or echo what the prime minister had said, Hadju instead offered a defence of the Chinese government’s record.
“There is 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,” Hadju declared, before suggesting that the reporter’s question was somehow “feeding into conspiracy theories.”
It’s unclear why Hadju has such faith in official Chinese claims or why she felt that she had to publicly rebuke these reports about Chinese deceitfulness. Granted, there probably is a need in the short term to work with China and keep channels of communication open as we navigate this pandemic. But there’s no need at all to be lending a hand to China’s disinformation efforts.
To whatever extent China is sincere in trying to help other countries contain COVID-19 — either through the sharing of information about the virus itself or through the sharing of personal protective equipment for health-care workers — we must also not lose sight of the fact that we’re dealing with an autocratic regime with its own agenda and interests.
As such, a much higher level of skepticism is warranted when it comes to official Chinese claims and statements.
Not only is it not in Canada’s interests to take China’s claims at face value, it’s not in the federal government’s interests to be hurting its own credibility right now. Canadians are being asked to put a great deal of faith in our elected leaders at the moment and the health minister’s credulity here isn’t helping.
Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.