Health Minister Patty Hajdu needs to be more "careful and thoughtful" when it comes to answering questions related to China's concealment of the true extent of the COVID-19 outbreak, says a Northeast Asia intelligence and security expert.
“Beijing has been working in overdrive in recent weeks to alter the narrative on the rapidly evolving crisis linked to the spread of COVID-19 around the world,” said Jonathan Miller, a senior fellow with Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
In response to a question last week as to whether Canada has received similar intelligence as the United States that Beijing has been lying about the scale of the outbreak in China, Hajdu said Ottawa has no reason to believe that China's numbers are falsified, adding that Canada relies on the World Health Organization to collect data from different countries.
When asked by a reporter if WHO’s figures can be trusted if they are based on China’s numbers, Hajdu accused the reporter of “feeding into conspiracy theories.”
Chen Weihua, editor for China Daily, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, lauded Hajdu on Twitter for her response.
“Canadian Health Minister Hajdu is a role model. She is a disappointment to those paparazzi journalists and fearmongers,” Chen tweeted.
When asked the same question, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sidestepped the issue, merely saying "there will be many questions as this is worked through in the coming months."
Miller says the issue of how the Chinese Communist Party has handled the pandemic is of great importance to the regime, as any criticism poses a real threat to its legitimacy.
“This desperation for a deflected and nationalist narrative is where [Beijing's] aggressive disinformation campaign ties in,” he says.
Intelligence reports have cast doubt on Beijing's official infection and death figures, with British media recently reporting that scientists have advised the country's leadership that the number of cases in China may have been downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times.
China has also launched an active disinformation campaign on social media to drive the narrative that the virus was brought to Wuhan–the epicentre of the outbreak that led to a global pandemic–by the U.S. military, as a host of countries, including United States, were openly questioning China’s data.
Miller says Canada should be pushing for more "transparency and investigation on COVID-19 and its origins in China."
Opposition to Travel RestrictionsSince the earlier days of the outbreak, Canadian officials insisted there was no need to restrict travel from China, citing WHO's recommendations.
WHO has actively advised against any restrictions on travel from China and praised Beijing for its efforts in containing the outbreak, while the regime lashed out at countries that imposed travel bans.
"WHO doesn't recommend, and actually opposes, any restrictions for travel and trade or other measures against China," WHO Director-General Tedros Adham Ghebreyesus said on Jan. 30. The organization has repeated the same position as the outbreak has progressed.
Reiterating WHO's position, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said in early February that “having measures that very negatively affect a certain country that’s trying very hard to do its best can impede whether this country in the future will ever share anything transparently with others."
She added that "China posted the virus genome very quickly. What are they getting out of it? I think the idea is to support China.”
This week, U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States would withhold funding to WHO, saying the agency is "too China-centric," and criticized it for opposing travel bans.
As more outbreaks began in other countries, including Iran and Italy, Canadian officials continued to insist that closing the borders wouldn't stop the spread in Canada.
On March 16, Ottawa announced that borders would be closed to non-essential visitors except Americans, and the U.S.-Canada border was also closed a few days later.