The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates a growing demand for strong public accountability and the importance of whistleblower protection, according to a Griffith University public integrity expert.
Professor of public policy and law A J Brown has contributed to a global statement written in response to dramatic mistakes by officials and authorities in their knee jerk reactions to the pandemic.
Coalition to Make Whistleblowing Safe During COVID-19 and Beyond is supported by more than 50 organisations and experts worldwide.
The professor said the reprimand – and later death – of a doctor who tried to alert fellow doctors in China about COVID-19 in late December was a terrible yet clear outcome of the dangers caused by attempting to silence whistleblowers.
“The tragic death of Dr Li Wenliang in Wuhan, China on February 7 showed the world how vital it is for professionals to raise the alarm – but even more, how vital it is for authorities to respond properly, and not simply by shooting the messenger,” Professor Brown said.
“The local public security bureau has since apologised to Dr Li’s family, the police officers have been disciplined and more heads are set to roll over the early response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan as the Commission continues to investigate.
“Similar poor initial responses are being played out worldwide.”
Professor Brown referred to an incident which occurred on April 2 when the Trump administration stood down the US Navy captain of an nuclear aircraft carrier, for copying too many people on an internal memo appealing for faster evacuation of sick members of his 4000 crew off Guam.
He added that meanwhile last month in Poland, nurse and midwife Renata Piżanowska was sacked for posting pictures of her homemade surgical mask on social media after official calls for the public to donate personal protective equipment to hospitals. Professor Brown said officials claimed she acted “too nervously”.
Professor Brown believes it is not just overseas where these incidents are occurring, with many arising on home soil too.
He cites an incident in early February when Qantas stood down an aircraft cleaner and union representative who raised concerns over cleaning standards in aircraft – a matter that is now being investigated by WorkSafe NSW.
It’s understood WorkSafe NSW issued formal breach notices to Qantas a month later for failing to provide cleaners with a safe system of work, forcing them to handle wet tissues, used face masks and dirty nappies without proper protection.
Adelaide Airport has since been brought to a near standstill by a COVID-19 outbreak among Qantas baggage handlers.
“Just yesterday, a Sydney doctor working on the COVID-19 response was forced to sound the alarm that vulnerable patients in forced hotel isolations are not getting the care they need,” Professor Brown said.
He said Australian and international research confirms that employees and officials are the single most important and fastest way wrongdoing or mistakes are brought to light in organisations – with the current crisis simply highlighting whistleblowers’ importance and strengthened protections for private sector whistleblowers should be remembered, and where necessary, brought to bear.
“Amid strong calls for accountability to return to government decision-making at this time, we must remember it is the frontline people who speak up and speak out, who are our best assets for transparency, and most in need of our support and protection.”
“The current situation reminds us that public sector whistleblower protections are lagging behind in Australia, with law reform already overdue in the federal parliament, and many State parliaments as this crisis continues.
“This is especially the case when the risks of wrongdoing and bungling are going to apply only more strongly to the billions of taxpayers’ dollars being urgently rolled out as part of the economic response.”