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Tam says the pandemic will bring a 'new normal' to workplaces, defends WHO's performance – CBC.ca

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Canada’s top doctor says that when Canada’s locked-down economic activity revives, she expects to see companies embrace a “new normal” in how they operate to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

In the second part of a wide-ranging interview with CBC News, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that when Canadians return to work, it won’t be the same type of working environment that existed before the pandemic.

“I actually think businesses and Canadians will come up with ideas and I think public health is asking, ‘Well, here are some of the parameters, come up with a plan of how your workplace could potentially be redesigned,'” Tam told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton.

Tam suggested that some workplaces could get more employees to work from home, or stagger the start times of shifts so that large numbers of people don’t crowd public transportation at the same times of day.

“The new normal, when we get there, is one that is not the same as before,” Tam said  “It’s one that might see our society function in different ways.”

Watch: Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam describes what life in might look like going forward:

In an exclusive interview with CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam describes what life in Canadian cities, workplaces and homes might look like going forward. 0:56

Tam noted that travellers are now required to wear masks while flying or crossing international borders and suggested that practice could be expanded.

“How we actually maintain some sort of physical distance at the same time as certain businesses begin to open and workplaces re-adjust to the new normal — I think it will have some profound changes in society, including maybe our acceptance of people wearing masks,” she said.

Tam said that provinces will have to meet certain benchmarks before relaxing public health standards in order to prevent a resurgence of the disease.

‘Profound changes in society’

“Some of … that new normal is to make sure the epidemic curve in your local area has come down to the bottom end,” Tam said, adding that once the bottom of the curve is reached, a population has to sustain that lower number of cases and test broadly for the disease to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed.

A framework for reopening Canada’s economies, jointly agreed to by the federal, provincial and territorial governments, was released earlier today.

The plan’s preconditions for easing restrictions and reopening economies include:

  • COVID-19 transmission coming under control, so that health care systems can manage the number of new cases with “substantial” clinical care capacity and a stabilized number of hospitalizations, with the possible exception of isolated outbreaks.
  • Public health capacity that’s sufficient to test, trace and isolate cases.
  • Supports to help vulnerable groups and communities.
  • Measures to prevent the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in workplaces.
  • A plan to limit the risk of importing the virus by easing and managing restrictions on non-essential domestic travel in a coordinated manner, while recognizing that reopening international borders may happen only in later stages.

Tam also told CBC News that one of the features of the new normal will be a lack of cruise ships in Canadian waters.

“We’ll postpone the cruise ships coming into Canada and re-evaluate it,” she said. “The re-evaluation is July, but let’s just say that can’t happen here, because the introduction would be huge. You’d have thousands of passengers coming into port.”

A slow, phased-in easing of restrictions is necessary, Tam said, to avoid a second outbreak. 

“I just have the image of New York City in my head. And I think I would never want that to happen anywhere in Canada,” she said. “And if we let things resume too fast, we may get that kind of surge.”

The World Health Organization [WHO] has been accused of putting too much faith in information about the virus and its death toll coming out of China.

Watch: Theresa Tam says health experts underestimated COVID-19 and that it would be “worthwhile to examine” the WHO’s response.

In an exclusive interview, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam tells CBC’s chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that health experts underestimated the global COVID-19 spread and that it would be “worthwhile to examine” the World Health Organization’s response. 1:29

Tam said she appreciates the challenges the WHO faced in trying to get ahead of a new and fast-moving disease.

“I think it’s a very difficult job to do, quite honestly,” Tam said. “We have a federated system with different provinces and territories. The WHO has to serve over 190 member states … The data is what it is, you’re going to have to work with information at the time that you’ve received, and it may be incomplete.

“I’m not sure if the WHO could have got more information. That I can’t necessarily know.”

Tam said that while she would welcome a review of the pandemic advice provided by the WHO, she does not fault it for its initial response because health experts all over the world “underestimated where this could go.” 

“I think it is always worthwhile to examine what went on and that is actually a normal process,” she said. “Especially after such an extraordinary and unprecedented event, we would always want that … [to] look at what could be done better.”

Personal attacks

Tam pointed out that the WHO is only as good as the information provided to it by member states. She said that while Canada prepared its response at the outset as if COVID-19 was going to be a pandemic, Canadian officials “had no concept” in the early days “whether it would become one.”

“The estimations of how transmissible the virus was and how severe it was [were] unclear at the start,” she said. “Most of my colleagues, some of whom are much more experienced than me, didn’t quite know what the situation was. I’m not sure what more could have been done.”

Tam was asked about recent personal attacks made against her — by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who accused her of repeating media lines from the People’s Republic of China, and by Conservative leadership candidate Derek Sloan, who asked if Tam works for China.

“I’m really busy focusing on the actual response and that is what I’m here to do,” she said.

Tam said that she copes with the personal attacks — and the more racist and misogynist abuse she receives online — by focusing “on how incredible Canadians have been” in following public health directives.

“I just sort of compartmentalize it,” she said. “I think everybody copes with these things a little bit differently.

“I’ve always been someone who represents public health in its widest scope, its determinants of health … how we treat people in different ways affects people’s health, and that’s how I sort of look at it.

“Stigmatization leads to poor health outcomes. And it does not help our collective response.”

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Ontario needs to be more transparent with COVID-19 data, critics say – CBC.ca

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If information is power, Ontario seems to be experiencing a brownout.

Three months into the COVID-19 crisis, one of Canada’s hardest-hit provinces is still unable to share some basic details about the spread of the disease, including the number of tests being performed per region, statistics on the success of contact tracing, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) or the location of outbreak “hot spots.”

The sort of data that is often readily available in other Canadian provinces and jurisdictions around the world.

On Wednesday, Toronto Public Health bowed to public pressure and released COVID case numbers for all of the city’s postal codes — information that may well spur more residents to get tested. This came just one day after Ontario Premier Doug Ford had rejected calls for a similar province-wide disclosure, saying he worried that the information could be “very stigmatizing” for people living in those areas.

Now, critics are calling for even more COVID transparency as Ontario struggles to flatten its curve and find a safe way to relax its lockdown.

“The province’s unwillingness and inability to collect the appropriate data, and in turn share it with the public, and public health units, is hindering our response to COVID-19,” said Joe Cressy, a Toronto city councillor and chair of the Board of Health.

Absence of information

Cressy cites not just the imprecise testing numbers but the absence of information on the race, occupation and living conditions of those who have fallen ill — details that might help authorities understand who is most at risk and how the disease is spreading.

WATCH | Toronto Coun. Joe Cressy says more COVID-19 data is crucial:

Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy disappointed in lack of provincial COVD-19 data. 0:19
He said this was especially crucial in the Greater Toronto Area, which currently accounts for 76 per cent of all new COVID infections in the province.

“In order to tackle a virus, you need to understand it,” said Cressy. “So for us to be able to tackle COVID-19, to test for it proactively, to respond with the appropriate protections in place, we need to know who it’s hurting and who it’s hurting most.”

It’s a call echoed by Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network.

“Having data is really important for all aspects of tackling COVID-19. It lets us know where we’ve been. It lets us know where we’re going,” he said. “If we don’t have that information, we don’t really have a good idea of the best ways for us to approach it. And we also don’t have an understanding of where our blind spots are.”

Morris said that hospitals in the province are still operating in the dark when it comes to things like the availability of hand sanitizer and PPE or localized surges in positive tests — something that might allow them to plan for busy emergency rooms days in advance.

Last week, Ford vowed yet again to “ramp up” testing, to levels that “this province has never seen.”

“I’m going to be all over this testing,” said the premier.

Meanwhile, his health minister, Christine Elliott, has defended his government’s record to date. 

“Do we hit the targets every single day? No. There is an ebb and flow to this but we are increasing our capacity on a daily basis,” she said.

Complicated reporting systems 

Part of the problem, Morris said, are “archaic” systems that don’t allow hospitals, regional health authorities and the province to readily and easily share and analyze the data they have on hand.

“I think a lot of this relates to the chronic under-funding of public health in Ontario,” said Morris. “Many of the problems that we’re experiencing today were experienced during [the 2002-03] SARS crisis as well… Our public health infrastructure has really not ramped up to the level that we’ve needed to.”

Even the flow of basic information between the province and its 32 public health units is complicated. For example, Ontario’s daily COVID update pulls together information from four different databases — the provincial integrated Public Health Information System (iPHIS), which dates back to the early 2000s, as well as newer, municipally run reporting systems in Toronto, Ottawa and Middlesex-London.

Meanwhile, in the hastily constructed testing system — which is administered by the province — samples travel all over Ontario to both public and private labs for analysis. As a result, many local health regions say they don’t know how many tests they have performed, and can only disclose how many positive results have come back.

Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto’s Sinai Health and University Health Network, said that having data is important for tracking all aspects of COVID-19. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

The way that news of positive tests is shared with public health officials depends on which lab or hospital has processed the swab. A Toronto Public Health spokesperson told CBC that it has been receiving lab reports through a variety of ways: electronically, by phone, fax, even through the mail. 

As of Wednesday, Peel, York, Ottawa, Durham, Waterloo and Windsor-Essex County followed Toronto as regions with the greatest number of COVID cases. 

Scattered data

CBC News canvassed these additional six public health units to determine recent counts of COVID-19 swab testing. The response was scattered. 

While each unit publishes detailed COVID-19 updates online, York Region Public Health Services, Windsor-Essex County Health Unit and Ottawa Public Health are the only regions in the group that publish daily testing numbers. York’s website provides the most comprehensive daily counts, broken all the way down to specific testing centres. According to the data, the entire region tested 705 people on May 25.

All of this is a sharp contrast to British Columbia and Alberta, which have both managed to share regional testing numbers throughout the crisis. Or Quebec, which provides case numbers by district for its major urban centres. 

New York City, perhaps the hardest-hit spot in the worldwide pandemic, has a municipal website that tracks everything from hot spots to local testing levels to the distribution of PPE and free meals.

New York City’s public health authority shares extensive and comprehensive COVID-19 data, including daily testing counts, cases by zip code and the numbers of free meals that have been distributed so far during the pandemic. (NYC Health)

Then there’s South Korea, where the government has been providing the public with detailed information on where novel coronavirus patients reside, so they can steer clear of specific streets or neighbourhoods.

False impression of spread

The man quarterbacking Ontario’s COVID-19 response, Dr. David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, defended the provincial approach on Wednesday, suggesting that things like Toronto’s list of postal code hot spots might actually give a false impression of the spread of the disease. 

“You may find that you have a number of people in an area because you have the same postal code,” Williams said. “Does that mean that neighbourhood is the problem? Or that the people went and worked in different companies that happen to have outbreaks in those companies?”

Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams has defended the province’s decision to not disclose neighbourhood locations of COVID-19 outbreak ‘hot spots.’ (CBC)

Government transparency advocates say they don’t buy such claims.

“We feel that governments in general should be more open with the information that’s coming out,” said Ian Bron, a project co-ordinator with the newly formed Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group.

“Many Canadians don’t know where the hot spots are. And that’s the kind of information that citizens should have in order to make informed decisions about where to go and where to go afterwards. For example, if you’re going to visit a loved one in a long-term care facility.”

Bron acknowledged that governments have been forced to improvise during the crisis but said that shouldn’t be an excuse for obscuring information that could be ultimately useful for public health.

“It’s a little too easy to say we’re in the middle of an emergency so we can’t do anything right now. That doesn’t mean you can’t start taking steps in the right direction,” he said. In a new report, his group is calling for measures like federal and provincial COVID ombudspersons to help improve transparency.

U.S. produces ‘much better data than we do’

Bron points to American jurisdictions as a positive example for Canadian governments.

Ian Bron is a project co-ordinator with the newly formed Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group. (Courtesy of Carleton University )

“Although it seems like a terrible mess in the States, they produce much better data than we do. They go to much greater levels of granularity,” he said.

There are worries about the consequences of too little information as the COVID outbreak grinds on. Morris pointed to a recent mass gathering in a Toronto park as evidence that the public might be at risk of losing the COVID plot.

“Today, I’m not sure that the average citizen really understands why there’s a need to physically distance, self-isolate and [wear a] mask, and part of that relates to not having a clear [government] strategy,” he said. “I think if there were one overarching challenge that we haven’t overcome yet, it’s a clearer message.”

It’s an absence of illumination that threatens to leave an entire province groping around for a way forward.

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Coronavirus: What's happening in Canada on May 27 – CBC.ca

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The latest:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday the province will immediately take over management of five long-term care homes, including four that were the subject of a scathing military report into horrific conditions in the residences. 

The Canadian Armed Forces released two reports this week about conditions at five long-term care homes in Ontario and 25 long-term care homes in Quebec where they were deployed to help during the pandemic. 

In the Ontario homes, the military report detailed allegations of insect infestations, aggressive resident feeding that caused choking, bleeding infections and residents crying for help for hours. The report also touched on staffing and training issues, supply shortages and poor communication. 

Ford called the report “horrific,” and said it was “the most heart-wrenching report” he’s ever read in his life.

On Wednesday, he told reporters that six teams of two inspectors each will be deployed to five long-term care homes to undertake “expanded and rigorous inspection and monitoring” for the next two weeks. 

WATCH | Ford lays out plan to take over management of 5 long-term care homes:

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says the province will take over management of five long-term care homes and begin inspections in all residences. 2:08

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the report into Ontario’s homes “deeply disturbing,” and said more needs to be done to support people living in long-term care, a message he reiterated on Wednesday after Quebec released a report from the military about what members had observed in that province.

In those homes, the Armed Forces members observed issues with the division between “hot” and “cold” zones — where patients were infected with COVID-19 or not — the proper use of protective equipment and staffing shortages.

The report said military personnel helped train staff to improve the situation.

At his briefing Wednesday, Quebec Premier François Legault said he was not surprised by the findings, and the province will work to recruit 10,000 new workers for long-term care homes by fall.

WATCH | Legault says many problems rooted in staffing shortages in long-term care homes: 

François Legault says the problems come from having a lack of staff, and he is launching a major drive to train thousands of new orderlies. 2:58

In the meantime, Legault said he would like the contingent of soldiers deployed in Quebec homes to stay and help until Sept. 15.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says another four months of deployment will not be possible. “I understand the needs and concerns that Quebec may have,” he told host Vassy Kapelos on CBC’s Power & Politics, but he said the current situation would not be sustainable. 

“We will not be able to do this for any prolonged period.”

Sajjan said the military is talking with provincial officials but he stressed that while the Forces can buy time for the homes that need staff, it’s important to get the appropriately trained personnel into the facilities. 

The military has agreed to stay in Ontario long-term care homes until June 12.

WATCH | Seniors’ advocate outlines 3 key measures to improve residential seniors’ care:

Laura Tamblyn Watts, president and CEO of CanAge, a national seniors’ advocacy organization, also urges care be moved to a more home-like setting and away from the current medical model.   1:25

States of emergency

As it deals with the fallout of the military report, Ontario has announced it is extending its emergency order until June 9. The province continues to deal with an uptick in COVID-19 cases and major issues in some long-term care homes, which house elderly and vulnerable residents who are at increased risk of severe illness and death from the disease.

A news release on Wednesday said under the extended emergency order, measures such as the restriction on gatherings of more than five people will stay in place, as will a range of other measures, including the mandated closure of bars and restaurants.

British Columbia also moved Wednesday to extend its state of emergency for another two weeks, making it the longest period of time it has been under such orders.

The province was under emergency orders for 10 weeks during the 2017 wildfire season. With today’s extension, it will bring the province to 12 weeks, with “no likely end in sight,” according to Premier John Horgan.  

Hot spots

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said Tuesday that epidemic growth “continues to slow” nationally, but outbreaks are still an issue, especially in long-term care, shelters and workplaces.

Tam said on Twitter that “most worrying” is community spread in and around hot spots, such as Toronto and Montreal.

She urged people to stick with public health measures, such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cough etiquette and staying home if sick.

As of 7:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Canada had 87,519 confirmed and presumptive cases of coronavirus, with 46,177 considered resolved or recovered. A CBC News tally of deaths based on provincial data, regional health information and CBC’s reporting stood at 6,858. Public health officials have cautioned that recorded figures don’t capture information on people who have not been tested and cases that are still under investigation.

The novel coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe illness or death. There are no proven treatments or vaccines for the virus, which causes an illness called COVID-19.

Here’s what’s happening in the provinces and territories

B.C.’s elected officials will return to the provincial legislature June 22. Members have been working from home since mid-March, but Premier Horgan said Wednesday that most will return to Victoria while maintaining public health measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. Read more about what’s happening in B.C.

Alberta health officials are investigating a possible case of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC) in the province. Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw said Wednesday the illness has been seen in Quebec, the U.K. and the U.S., and that while it can sound scary, it appears to be rare and treatable. Read more about what’s happening in Alberta.

Saskatchewan reported two new coronavirus deaths on Wednesday, bringing the number of COVID-19-linked deaths in the province to 10. Both deaths were in patients in the far north of the province. There were also three new cases. Saskatchewan moved to Phase 2 of its reopening May 19, allowing businesses like clothing stores, hair salons and greenhouses to open with restrictions. Read more about what’s happening in Saskatchewan.

WATCH | COVID-19: What are the risks of eating at a restaurant?

An infectious disease specialist answers questions about the risks of eating at a restaurant as they reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2:57

Manitoba will allow restaurants, gyms and pools to reopen on June 1, the province said Wednesday. Read more about what’s happening in Manitoba, where the government is considering changes to the multimillion-dollar aid package for businesses impacted by the pandemic and subsequent public health restrictions.

Ontario’s COVID-19 cases are concentrated in the Greater Toronto Area, with more than three-quarters of the active cases listed by the province found in Toronto, as well as Peel, York, Durham and Halton regions, CBC’s MIke Crawley reports. Read more about what’s happening in Ontario, where questions continue about long-term care after a detailed report from Canadian Armed Forces outlined major issues with five facilities. Ontario reported 292 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday.

Quebec is expanding its COVID-19 testing by bringing more mobile testing to the Mauricie region. In Trois-Rivières and Shawinigan, municipal vehicles have been transformed so they can offer curbside testing. “When the unit comes to a neighbourhood, the team will go ringing doorbells, talk with people about their health, and if they have symptoms, we’ll invite them to be tested,” a local health official said. Read more about what’s happening in Quebec, which reported 541 new coronavirus cases and 89 new deaths on Wednesday.

New Brunswick reported another new case of COVID-19 in the Campbellton region Wednesday, the third case within a week. The person is a medical professional who travelled to Quebec and did not self-isolate upon their return, said Premier Blaine Higgs. Read more about what’s happening in N.B.

Nova Scotia reported one new case on Wednesday. The province says many businesses that are ready can reopen June 5, including restaurants, bars, hair salons and gyms. “We believe we found a balance between public safety and restarting our economy,” Premier Stephen McNeil said.  Read more about what’s happening in Nova Scotia, including the story of one woman trying to help staff at the hard-hit Northwood long-term care home in Halifax.

Prince Edward Island’s government is taking criticism from the Opposition over its decision to allow seasonal residents to travel to the island this summer amid the ongoing pandemic. Read more about what’s happening on P.E.I.

WATCH | Hotels implement enhanced cleaning, safety measures to reopen during pandemic:

For hotels preparing to reopen during the pandemic, they are implementing enhanced cleaning procedures and with new measures in place to keep guests safe. 1:59

Newfoundland and Labrador has reported no new COVID-19 cases for 20 days now.  But despite the positive news, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, is urging residents to continue to uphold safety measures. “Experts around the world are predicting a second wave of COVID-19,” she said Wednesday, “and we must remain vigilant in following the public health measures in place so that when it happens we will be in the best possible position to respond.” Read more about what’s happening in N.L.

Yukon University is preparing for a fall semester with many online classes, and perhaps a late start for some classes, too. The university’s two degree programs in Indigenous governance and business administration will be delivered entirely online, as will early learning and child care, liberal arts and social work. Read more about what’s happening across the North.

Here’s what’s happening around the world

Restaurant owners, wearing protective face masks, use measuring tape to measure the distance between tables to maintain physical distance inside a restaurant in Nice, France, on Wednesday, before the announcement by the French government of the further easing of lockdown measures following the outbreak of COVID-19. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

WATCH | Respirologist responds to questions about wearing a mask in the heat and the effect of vitamin D on COVID-19:

Even people with common chronic diseases such as asthma should be able to tolerate wearing a mask in the hot summer months, says Dr. Samir Gupta. 6:00

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Today's court decision on Meng Wanzhou's extradition could rattle the Canada-China relationship – CBC.ca

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No matter how the ruling goes today in the case of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, it will have an impact on the fraught relationship between Canada and China.

A B.C. court is expected to issue a ruling today on the question of so-called “double criminality” in Meng’s extradition case — whether what Meng is accused of in the United States would be a crime in Canada. The judge could end up ruling in her favour, although Canada could appeal.

Tuesday, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian issued a warning to Canada in his daily news conference.

“China’s position on the Meng Wanzhou case is consistent and clear,” he said. “The U.S. and Canada abused their bilateral extradition treaty and arbitrarily took compulsory measures against a Chinese citizen without cause. This is entirely a serious political incident that grossly violates the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen.”

Zhao — who has used his Twitter account to promote a conspiracy theory claiming that a visiting U.S. military sports team deliberately released the novel coronavirus in China — continued:

“The Canadian side should immediately correct its mistake, release Ms. Meng and ensure her safe return to China at an early date so as to avoid any continuous harm to China-Canada relations.”

Optimism in party circles

The Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote this week that “legal experts are cautiously optimistic” and say that “Meng is ‘highly likely’ to be freed from a purely legal perspective if Canada truly has the judicial system completely independent from any political influence, as it always boasts.”

Lynette Ong, director of China initiatives at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, said Chinese officials seem genuinely to believe that the facts of the case, and Canadian law, favour Meng.

“I think they are expecting a favourable outcome,” she told CBC News. “I think that would be seen as a rightful and fair decision” in Beijing, rather than just a capitulation to Chinese pressure, because Meng’s lawyers have done a good job of raising doubts about the federal Department of Justice’s claim that Meng violated Canadian laws, she added.

Lynette Ong of the University of Toronto’s Munk School says she thinks Beijing is expecting a “favourable outcome” from today’s court hearing. (University of Toronto website)

On the other hand, Ong said, a ruling against Meng would be sure to renew Chinese allegations that Canada’s courts are not independent. 

“Put it this way — no court in China is independent of the government. Therefore, the dominant mindset is that the Canadian courts are not independent either, not independent of the Canadian government and also not independent of the U.S. government,” she said.

Prominent Chinese academic and dissident Xiao Qiang agrees. “They see everything as politics, rather than an independent judicial system.”

Xiao Qiang is director of the Counter-Power Lab at UC Berkeley, which studies censorship, disinformation and propaganda with a strong focus on China. 

“If the result is what China’s government welcomes, then they will interpret it as their pressure on Canada worked. If the result is not what China wanted, then they will see that as the Canadian government not giving them what they want.”

Reciprocity not guaranteed

The Chinese side may be optimistic, but any Canadian hoping that a favourable decision in the Meng case might lead China to quickly release Canadian detainees Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor would have found little to celebrate in Zhao’s statement yesterday.

“They were involved in activities endangering China’s national security,” Zhao said in his statement. “In accordance with law, China’s judicial authorities have been dealing with the cases independently and ensuring their legal rights. China urges the Canadian side to respect the spirit of the rule of law and China’s judicial sovereignty and stop making irresponsible remarks.”

A young man holds a sign bearing photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou was attending a hearing, on January 21, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Chinese officials have steadfastly refused to acknowledge suggestions that Kovrig and Spavor are, in effect, hostages for Meng. Beijing’s representatives — including Ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu — also have declined to discuss the vast differences in the treatment experienced by Meng and the two Canadians.

Kovrig and Spavor are being held alone in solitary confinement without access to lawyers or family members. Meng, meanwhile, took advantage of her generous bail conditions on Saturday to stage a celebratory photo shoot outside the B.C. Supreme Court.

Quid pro quo … or no?

Beijing has insisted that the two Canadians were arrested on legitimate national security grounds, and repeatedly denied they were being held in retaliation for Meng.

China has been censured by several other countries over the case, including the U.S., U.K., Germany and Australia.

Xiao Qiang says it would now be difficult for Beijing to follow Meng’s release with a swift liberation of Kovrig and Spavor without conceding that they were, after all, just bargaining chips. 

“For that reason China may not release them.”

China likely would want something like Richard Nixon’s “decent interval” to pass before engaging in such a naked transaction.

Ong said the next steps China takes will be determined partly by the groundwork Canadian diplomats in Beijing have done to prepare for today’s ruling.

“If Meng walks free, the two Michaels need to be released, they need to make sure that end of the bargain is fulfilled too,” she said.

“I don’t know what Ottawa is doing, but they really should be talking to their Beijing counterparts to discuss different scenarios of this case, and the implications for the fate of the two Michaels. I hope they are doing that.”

CBC News put that question to Global Affairs Canada. Spokesman Adam Austen responded: “While we cannot comment on a matter before the courts, we are closely following the extradition case of Meng Wanzhou currently in its judicial phase.

“When it comes to China, our top priority continues to be securing the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and calling for clemency for Canadians facing the death penalty in China, including Robert Schellenberg. We will continue to advocate on their behalf.”

Pandemic politics

China’s authoritarian government has been acting lately like an organization that knows it is living through a pivotal moment in its history. It has seen both danger and opportunity in the COVID-19 pandemic and has moved forcefully to forestall the former (as demonstrated by its PPE diplomacy around the world) and seize the latter — in Hong Kong, where it has proposed new national security laws that many see as an attempt to crush Hong Kong’s autonomy.

But the party has never lost sight of the Meng case.

Lately, Beijing has made a modest effort at mending fences with Canada as part of its attempt to bend the narrative of COVID-19 to one of international collaboration.

“China and Canada have been cooperating in the anti-epidemic fight,” opined the Global Times in its editorial Tuesday, “and are also cooperating on developing COVID-19 medicines and vaccines … In February, when China was hit hard by the virus, the Trudeau government provided 16 tons of anti-virus supplies. Later in March, the Bank of China returned the favour …

“Moreover, Canada has been keeping a rational attitude toward the U.S.’s well-calculated campaign of ‘holding China accountable’ for the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.

American hostility growing

Still, today’s ruling comes at a time when China increasingly feels under pressure on the world stage.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden appear to be trying to out-do one another in taking a tough approach to China, with Trump accusing Biden of having given China “EVERYTHING they wanted, including rip-off Trade Deals.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has been trying to portray his opponent Joe Biden as soft on China. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Biden in turn accused Trump of turning a blind eye to China’s rights abuses and breaches of past agreements.

“It is no surprise China’s government believes it can act with impunity to violate its commitments. The administration’s protests are too little, too late — and Donald Trump has conspicuously had very little to say,” Biden said in a statement.

And U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien has continued to accuse China of perpetuating its own version of the Chernobyl cover-up with COVID-19. “We want good relations with China and with the Chinese people, but unfortunately, we’re seeing just action after action by the Chinese Communist Party that makes it difficult,” he said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

The hits keep coming

Meanwhile, in the U.K., Meng Wanzhou’s company Huawei (and China) suffered a major setback this week when Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to reverse an earlier decision allowing the Chinese firm to participate in the building of the country’s 5G system.

Up to 50 members of his own party were set to rebel against his government’s proposal to allow Huawei to participate up to a market share of 35 per cent. Johnson now says Huawei’s share will be reduced to zero by 2023.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson may have headed off a backbench revolt by downgrading Huawei’s role in his country’s 5G networks. (Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street /The Associated Press)

The threatened backbench revolt, and the government’s response to it, reflect the darkening mood toward China provoked by the Communist Party’s perceived efforts to leverage the pandemic for strategic and economic gains.

The U.S., which already had banned Huawei from its 5G network, went further on May 15 when it expanded the Commerce Department’s foreign direct product rule. “We will not tolerate efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to undermine the privacy of our citizens or the integrity of next-generation networks worldwide,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“Huawei is an untrustworthy vendor and a tool of the Chinese Communist Party, beholden to its orders,” Pompeo said, a charge Huawei’s founder, Meng’s father, has denied.

Canadians souring on China, Huawei

In Canada, too, the public’s attitude toward China has darkened dramatically, especially during the season of coronavirus.

The University of British Columbia has tracked a decline in positive feelings toward China over the past two years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed China’s public standing in Canada even lower. According to a more recent poll by the Angus Reid Institute, just 14 per cent of Canadians have a favourable impression of China — and 85 per cent believe its government has not been honest about the pandemic.

Recent events also have affected how Canadians feel about Huawei. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds said they wanted the company barred from Canada’s 5G networks. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the Angus Reid poll found that opposition had risen to more than four-fifths.

Lynette Ong said China may win the battle over Meng’s extradition only to find that it has lost a larger war for world public opinion — and is losing market share for its flagship company.

“I think there’s a considerable scar. I think Canadian society has a memory,” she said.

“In Canadian society, the pendulum has swung so much against China in the past year and a half, and even more so under this pandemic. And I really doubt it’s going to be healed any time soon, even if the two Michaels are released. 

“But if Meng walks free and the two Michaels are not released … I don’t know. It would be an uproar.”

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