The spread of the novel Coronavirus was an unprecedented crisis across borders. As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, 2020 also saw the emergence of a second, far more insidious crisis.
Countless people put their lives and jobs on the line to publicly expose the failings of health care systems, labor laws, and audacious violation of personal rights by authorities during the pandemic.
More often than not, employers and state authorities resort to harassing and firing people for speaking the truth. If this sounds alarmist, here are some factual accounts of how whistleblowers have faced systematic persecution during the pandemic.
The earliest dissenting voices about inadequate health and safety measures came from the place where it all began - Wuhan, China.
Dr. Li Wenliang was the first to warn the world via social media about the dangers of a newly-discovered virus in Wuhan, China. The Chinese government severely reprimanded Wenliang and his social media post declared illegal. By the time China woke up to the gravity of the crisis, the doctor had contracted the virus from a patient and died. His death sparked outrage and grief the world over.
Similarly, Dr. Ai Fen mysteriously disappeared after she registered a complaint about supervisors gagging her concerns about the Coronavirus. Fen worked at the Wuhan Central Hospital and was one out of eight doctors summoned by the police for their allegedly defamatory statements.
The United States
Over time, it became painfully evident that America was reeling the hardest from the crisis. As the country swung from indifference to ineptitude, several whistleblowers came forward to speak out.
Rick Bright, former director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), went public with claims that he faced severe backlash for opposing the use of the anti-malaria drug, Hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus. He also claimed top administration officials repeatedly pressured him to award contracts amounting to millions of dollars to the clients of a well-connected consultant.
Another anonymous whistleblower from the HHS disclosed concerns about inadequate PPEs and the training of health personnel. The employee alleges she was indecorously reassigned and faced termination if she refused the reassignment.
Attacks continued to rain down on essential frontline workers. Lauri Mazurkiewicz, a nurse at Chicago’s North Western Memorial Hospital was fired over the contents of an email sent to her colleagues. In the email, she wrote about wanting to wear a more protective mask on duty since she suffered from asthma and needed to take care of an elderly, ailing father.
In yet another case, an assistant employed at a Care Homes company spoke up about the mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak where he worked. Senior managers fired him on the grounds of “poor conduct.”
Brett E. Crozier, employed with the US Navy onboard the “Theodore Roosevelt” received zero to no resources to combat the virus. Crozier expressed his concerns in a letter and was fired for it.
The dangers of speaking truth to power during the pandemic reached some of the world’s highest political offices. Poland’s Member of Parliament, Bernadeta Krynicka was suspended by her party President for expressing concerns about the state’s inability to manage and contain the spread.
Meanwhile, at a hospital, Renata Piżanowska, who worked as a neonatal mid-wife lost her job for a Facebook post expressing concerns about the health of her patients and herself.
In India’s coastal state of Kerala, Dr. Shinu Syamalan was sacked for raising concerns about a patient traveling back from Qatar with flu symptoms. The patient had refused to get tested for the virus. Indian laws protecting whistleblowers are virtually ineffective, therefore, as good as non-existent.
As the international community battles the virus, protecting the rights of vigilant citizens ought to be critical common ground as well. With attacks against COVID-related whistleblowers increasing, the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) has called for stronger legislation providing safety and rights to whistleblowers everywhere.