COVID-19: The Largest Attack on Whistleblowers in the World

By Samantha Feinstein

The novel coronavirus has put whistleblower protection laws to the test. As the global community is counting each case of COVID-19 on a daily basis and seeing case numbers rise, the 45 whistleblower protection groups who make up the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) have been counting the ever-mounting cases of whistleblower-retaliation, and we see a global crisis of a different kind.

WIN recently launched a letter calling on all public authorities and institutions to protect whistleblowers. Coronavirus whistleblowers have been exposing inadequate health system capacity and delivery, public procurement problems, violations of health and safety and labor law, inequitable and ill-prepared global supply chains, unfair competition practices and market abuses, and large-scale violations of personal privacy rights. Employers and public authorities have responded to many of the doctors, scientists, and other frontline workers who told the truth by firing them. In countries like the US, UK, and Italy, such termination of employment is illegal whistleblower retaliation, but that hasn’t stopped employers. Other countries such as China, India, and Poland, employees don’t have any whistleblower rights on paper at all. In either scenario, employer retaliation chills others from engaging in public interest speech, which serves the overall mission of preventing the truth from getting to the community. The act of keeping the truth from the public during a pandemic is gross negligence, which is the deliberate and reckless disregard for the safety and reasonable treatment of others. Every time a whistleblower is retaliated against, the public’s rights are being trampled on too. Indeed, we are all victims in the wake of the largest attack on whistleblowers in the world. The whistleblowers’ stories show just how trans-continental public health whistleblowing is, and how weak whistleblower rights in one country can affect the entire global community. Here are a few heroic whistleblowers that illustrate the pattern of calls from coronavirus whistleblowers around the world going unheeded:

  • Wuhan, China: Li Wenliang was reprimanded and forced to sign a police statement that his social media post warning about the coronavirus was illegal. He later contracted the disease from a patient and died. Dr. Ai Fen from Wuhan Central Hospital claimed her supervisors tried to silence her after she raised early warnings about the coronavirus, and she later disappeared. They were 8 doctors who were allegedly summoned by police for whistleblowing about the virus.
  • Seattle, WA: Ming Lin, an emergency room physician, was fired because he gave an interview to a newspaper about inadequate protective equipment and testing.
  • Chicago, IL: Lauri Mazurkiewicz, a nurse with asthma who cares for her elderly father who suffers from a respiratory disease, was fired by Northwestern Memorial Hospital after emailing colleagues that she wanted to wear a more protective mask while on duty. She has since filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.
  • New York, NY: the NYU Langone Health system warned employees they could be terminated if they talk to the media without authorization.
  • US Navy: On the Navy aircraft carrier, the “Theodore Roosevelt”, Brett E. Crozier was fired for writing a letter about the Navy’s failures to provide him with the proper resources to combat the virus outbreak aboard the ship by moving sailors off the vessel. He later contracted the coronavirus.
  • Staten Island, New York: an Amazon warehouse worker, Christian Smalls, was fired for saying that the company is not doing enough to protect them from exposure.
  • London, UK: the National Health Service gagged British health workers from going to the media with health and safety concerns.
  • Kerala, India: Shinu Syamalan was fired for raising concerns about a traveling patient who refused to get tested for the coronavirus.
  • Poland: the former PiS (Poland’s ruling rightwing Law and Justice party) Member of Parliament (MP) Bernadeta Krynicka was  suspended by PiS president Jaroslaw Kaczyński for statements about the state’s lack of preparation for the coronavirus. Also, neonatal midwife Renata Piżanowska lost her job at the Podhale Specialist Hospital John Paul II in Nowy Targ after raising concerns about the health of herself and her patients on Facebook.  Andrzej Hawranek, an employee of Voivodeship Sanitary-Epidemiological Station, tweeted about a lack of tests for coronavirus in Cracow. His employer accused him of damaging their reputationincreasing citizens’ unrest and breaking the rule that only the head of the station or spokesman is eligible to inform the public about the institution’s work.  

That’s no way to treat the people who warned us all about the dangers awaiting us.  Suppressing the truth is a clear and present danger to public health and safety that could turn the pandemic into a modern Black Plague. Employers and governments are silencing their early warning systems, but the effect is trans-national. The outrage must be as well.

WIN Letter Signatories: 

Access Info / ACREC / African Centre for Media & Information Literacy / Alliance Nationale des Consomateurs et de L’Environement (Togo) / APW-Fíltrala / Archiveros Españoles en la Función Pública / Article 19 / Atlatszo / Austrian Press Club / Blueprint for Free Speech / Centre for Free Expression, Ryerson University / Center for Independent Journalism Romania / Centre for Law and Democracy / CFDT Cadres / Chile Transparente / Cibervoluntarios / Civic Initiatives (Gradjanske Inicijative) / Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre / CREW – Greenwich University / Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation / Prof. David Lewis, Whistleblowing Research Unit, Middlesex University / Disruption Network Lab / ePanstwo Foundation / EPSU – European Public Service Union / Eurocadres – Council of European Professional and Managerial Staff / ETUC – European Trade Union Confederation / European Centre for Press and Media Freedom / European Federation of Journalists / European Organisation of Military Associations and Trade Unions / Free Press Unlimited / Fundación Ciudadanía Inteligente / Fundación Internacional Baltasar Garzón (FIBGAR) / Funky Citizens / Ghana Integrity Initiative / Government Accountability Project / Prof. AJ Brown, Griffith University / Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights / Human Rights Center ZMINA / International Bar Association / K-Monitor / Labor Initiatives NGO / Legal Legion Loyalty / Maison des Lanceurs D’Alerte / Media Development Center / National Whistleblower Center / Oživení / Pistaljka / Plataforma en Defensa de Libertad de Información / Protect / Proyecto sobre Organización, Desarrollo, Educación e Investigación (PODER) / Reporters United / Reporters Without Borders / Sabiedrība par atklātību – Delna (Latvia) / Stefan Batory Foundation / The Ethicos Group / The Good Lobby / The Signals Network / Tom Mueller / Transparência e Integridade / Transparency International / Transparency International Australia / Transparency International Bangladesh / Transparency International Bosnia and Herzegovina / Transparency International Bulgaria / Transparency International Cambodia / Transparency International Estonia / Transparency International EU / Transparency International France / Transparency International Greece / Transparency International Health Initiative / Transparency International Ireland / Transparency International Italy / Transparency International Kenya / Transparency International Initiative Madagascar / Transparency Maldives / Transparency International Papua New Guinea / Transparency Serbia / Transparency International Slovenia / Transparency International Slovensko / Transparency International Spain / Transparency International Sri Lanka / Transparency International Ukraine / Transparency International Zimbabwe / UGICT CGT / Ukrainian Institute for Human Rights / Ukrainian league of lawyers for corruption combating / Uniting Church in Australia / Dr Vigjilenca Abazi, Maastricht University / Vouliwatch / WIN Whistleblowing International Network / Whistleblower-Network Germany / X-net