Canada's plan for COVID-19 international aid just beginning, minister says

More federal money could be freed up for different countries and international NGOs in the coming months as the pandemic continues around the world. It's also possible that Canada could send protective equipment like masks and gloves overseas — though the government insists it won't do so until it's convinced Canada has enough.

Masks, gloves, other equipment not being shipped overseas at this time, government says

Minister of International Development Karina Gould says she'll be continuously evaluating what's needed internationally to end the pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Canada's latest deployment of international aid to fight the COVID-19 pandemic likely won't be its last, International Development Minister Karina Gould said this week.

More money could be freed up for aid to various countries and international NGOs in the coming months to respond to the pandemic abroad, she told CBC News on Tuesday. She also said protective equipment — such as masks and gloves — could be sent overseas at some point, but not until the government is confident Canada has enough.

"We will continue to re-evaluate our international aid, just as the prime minister has said we will always look for new measures domestically," Gould said Tuesday. 

On Sunday, Global Affairs Canada announced $159.5 million in aid to international partners. It will be dispersed to organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) and provide support for vaccine development. Of the total, $30 million will be split between countries that have made specific requests of Canada.

The decision to free up that money came, in large part, in response to an appeal from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for a $2 billion investment from the organization's partners, the minister said.

Gould said she suspects this won't be the last international aid request Canada receives over the course of the pandemic.

About 100 countries have asked for help and money from Ottawa to deal with COVID-19. Global Affairs is still wading through the petitions and hasn't selected the nations that will get a piece of the money yet.

More than once, Gould pointed out that because the virus doesn't respect borders, it's impossible to fight it only at home.

"Now isn't the time to abandon each other," she said.

Investments at home and abroad

Gould said she's worried about developing countries with fragile health systems which have yet to experience the full force of a COVID-19 outbreak. She said she doesn't want Canada's inaction to play a part in bringing on a second global wave of the virus.

"The world is only as strong as our weakest health system," Secretary General Guterres said. "If we do not act decisively now, I fear the virus will establish a foothold in the most fragile countries, leaving the whole world vulnerable as it continues to circle the planet."

Gould acknowledged her government has been criticized for sending money abroad when Canadians are hurting financially (more than four million people have applied for a piece of the federal financial aid package). She said the aid investment is a "small fraction" of what Ottawa has committed to spend at home.

Mike Lake, the Conservative critic for international development, said he supports sending pandemic aid overseas — but the funds should be taken only from the existing foreign aid budget and the government must be held accountable for where that money ends up.

"It would be prudent to make sure the spending is getting to the most vulnerable," he said.

With Parliament suspended, Lake said he fears the Official Opposition won't have the chance to question the governing Liberals about the aid.

Erin O'Toole, Conservative Party leadership candidate and former foreign affairs critic, said back in March that the federal government shouldn't be sending pandemic resources outside the country.

"Foreign aid can wait. Right now, the Trudeau government should prioritize Canadians," he tweeted.

Lisa Sundstrom, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia, said she can't think of another point in history when the entire world faced a combined health and economic crisis.

She added that $159.5 million is a tiny sum compared to Canada's total foreign aid budget and the amount being spent responding to COVID-19 — but there are still good reasons to spend it.

"Even if we're totally selfish and we don't care about suffering anywhere else, we have to contend with getting it under control in other places in order for us to not be facing an onslaught and a regurgitation of cases in the future here," she said.

Supply concerns top of mind

Dozens of Canadian NGOs have applauded the government's decision to spend money on pandemic aid.

"Though the challenges we face in Canada are severe, those before our Southern partners are far greater," reads a letter the Canadian Council for International Co-operation sent to Gould.

Refugee initiatives in places like Bangladesh, Venezuela and Uganda need increased funding to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading further, the UN refugee agency has warned.

The government already has made international investments related to COVID-19, including $2 million for the WHO and $50 million for multiple global partners. The federal Liberals have been castigated for deploying 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China two months ago. That country has since sent donations of medical equipment back to Canada. 

Some provinces are facing a supply shortage. Ontario had said it would run out of personal protective equipment in a week and Alberta has just a month's worth of medical N95 masks left. Global Affairs says a chunk of the foreign aid money will be spent helping other countries procure medical supplies.

Over the past few years, Canada faced a backlash for a drop in international aid spending. In 2018, the OECD criticized Ottawa for allowing development funding to fall well below the agreed-upon target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income.

Canada spent $6.09 billion on "international assistance" in 2017-2018, according to Global Affairs Canada.

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