Epidemics and Chilling Effects: A Dangerous Combination

Barriers to Free Speech at Work, in China and At Home 

By Gabrielle Simeck

Following the detection of a mysterious pneumonia-like disease in Wuhan, China, disinformation, public confusion, and political censorship all intersected to create a dangerous public health crisis. 

One whistleblower story is particularly representative of the Chinese government’s failure to actively protect and encourage dissenting opinions and the raising of legitimate concerns as the coronavirus outbreak spiraled out of control. After Dr. Li Wenliang, an opthamologist, saw seven cases of a disease that looked like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a disease caused by a coronavirus, he raised concerns in a warning sent to other medical professionals on December 30. But following his whistleblowing, Dr. Li was told by police to stop “making false comments.” Dr. Li later posted his story to Weibo, the popular Chinese social media website, but he himself succumbed to the coronavirus on February 7 at the age of 34.

Dr. Li is one of numerous people in China who have faced the repressive tactics of the Chinese government. 

“At least 5” critics and journalists of the current regime have disappeared or were arrested after sharing information about the outbreak.  

It’s easy to condemn China’s authoritarian response to the epidemic. But botched responses and chilling effects aren’t only stemming from the Chinese government. The White House is also erecting barriers to speaking up.

On Thursday, February 27, the New York Times reported that the White House was attempting to “tighten control of coronavirus messaging by government health officials and scientists, directing them to coordinate all statements and public appearances with the office of Vice President Mike Pence.” Pence was chosen by Trump to head the coronavirus response on Wednesday. 

The Times also reported that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, a top expert on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, informed colleagues that “the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance.” 

On the same day, The Washington Post published further reporting casting a dark shadow on the White House’s coronavirus response. A senior Health and Human Services (HHS) official submitted a complaint on Wednesday to the US Office of Special Counsel alleging that she had been “unfairly and improperly reassigned,” after she raised concerns about the US handling of the outbreak. The official, who manages employees at HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, said in the complaint that HHS officials had sent over a dozen workers without proper training or safety precautions to handle the transfer of Americans repatriated from Wuhan, China. These workers did not show symptoms, nor did they receive tests for the virus. After her disclosures, the official was involuntarily reassigned to another position. Unless she accepts the new position, she was informed, she will be terminated in 15 days on March 5.

In its haste to contain public fear of the outbreak and save face after the stock market fell 11+ percent at the time of writing in its worst week since 2008, the Trump administration may be worsening the long-term consequences of the disease. Rather than encouraging public officials to do their jobs and raise concerns as is their legally protected right, the administration is repressing dissent.

These actions by the Trump administration are only the most recent in a long history of speech-chilling decisions. Previously the Trump administration has cracked down on speech used by Centers for Disease Control officials and also repeatedly used nondisclosure agreements to chill employee speech, an “unenforceable” practice. As Government Accountability Project staffers, Irvin McCullough and Zack Kopplin, wrote in The Washington Post, “Federal law prohibits the government from placing restrictions on employees’ free speech without making it clear those restrictions don’t remove their rights to disclose wrongdoing.”  

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread beyond the 56 countries where there have been documented cases, encouraging medical professionals, scientists, and government officials tasked with managing the outbreak to speak up and vocalize concerns will be crucial to saving lives. At Government Accountability Project, we know that whistleblower protections are in desperate need of reform — now more than ever. Sign the petition today to tell Congress whistleblower reforms are non-negotiable. Viruses may be unpredictable. But whistleblower rights shouldn’t have to be.