How COVID19 Could Have Been Avoided if Authorities Listened to Whistleblowers

The Colbert Factor

This reflection is inspired by the fact that although it has taken less than four weeks for the whole world to be almost completely locked down thanks to the rapidly spreading killer coronavirus, it could have been easily avoided and isolated to the Wuhan province if Chinese authorities listened to the whistleblower who originally raised the alert in Wuhan.

It is the more informed by the fact that just like Cameroon government and other governments around the world that usually claim to be all knowing when uncomfortable information is revealed about its wrongdoing, Chinese authorities were fast to accuse the whistleblower for ‘spreading rumours’ and reminded him of sections of the penal code that punish such.

It is also inspired by the fact that although whistleblowing is as old as independent continental America, countries around the world, including the United States that since passed laws protecting it, have never been comfortable with Whistleblowers even when it is recorded that their actions always benefit society rather than the individual whistleblower.

You might never have heard of Li Wenliang. He was the Chinese Medical Doctor who blew the lid off the Chinese authorities’ secrecy in trying to stem the spread of the coronavirus in Wuhan province in China. As a Medical Doctor, he was at a hospital where infected patients were being treated. Witnessing the intensity of the virus and its ability to spread uncontrollably across China and beyond, he issued an alert in an online platform, ‘we chart’. Rather than further investigations to ascertain the claim in order to take appropriate steps to stem it, Chinese authorities instructed the Police to call him to order. He was immediately summoned and accused of ‘spreading rumours’. He later contracted the disease and before he could die, Chinese authorities had officially apologized to him for not taking his early warning alert seriously. What followed was quarantining and the complete lockdown of Wuhan and other affected regions of China. Before then, the disease had spread beyond China. The World Health Organization, WHO, had declared it a public health concern and later, a pandemic. Within a twinkle of an eye, it had spread across the world.Li Wenliang has not been alone. Authorities in Thailand have reportedly been after Whistleblowers in the health sector as well as online journalists and bloggers with retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation for revealing the extent of the spread of the virus in Thailand.

In order to better understand the relevance of this reflection, its important we understand what it means to be a whistleblower. Broadly speaking, a whistleblower is an individual who, without authorization, reveals private or classified information about an Organization, usually related to wrongdoing or misconduct. Worthy of note is that such information must be of public interest and the evidence the whistleblower is revealing must be capable of withstanding public scrutiny. Although the term was first used to refer to public servants who made known government’s mismanagement, waste, or corruption, it now covers the activity of every individual who is concerned about probity and alerts a wider group to setbacks to their interests as a result of waste, corruption, fraud, or profit seeking.
The first recorded case of whistleblowing was in 1770 in the United States of America, where Esek Hopkins, first Navy Commander of Continental American Navy was reported to Congress by 10 subordinates for ostensibly torturing British Prisoners of War. Although the Commodore tried to retaliate against the whistleblowers who were thrown into jail, Congress intervened. The United States Congress later passed the Whistleblowers Protection Enhancement Act, allowing workers in the U.S to directly report to Congress any wrongdoing they see in their agencies. The Whistleblower who reportedly became concerned about conversations President Trump had with Ukraine’s President was benefiting from the Protection Act.

Part of the U.S Whistleblowers Act reads:
‘It is the duty of all Persons in the service of the United States, as well as all inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority, of any misconduct, frauds, or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge’. Recognizing the fact that government cannot be all-knowing and everywhere, the U.S Congress also went ahead to pass the ‘False Claims Act’, which Act allows private citizens to bring lawsuits on behalf of Federal government against companies and individuals suspected of defrauding the government. If a court ruled against the contractor, the Whistleblower was entitled to half of the damages won by government.

Whistleblowers do a selfless and commendable job.

It was thanks to Whistleblowers that we knew about the Watergate scandal, the Pentagon papers and most recently Wikileaks about the United States. The Pentagon Papers spoke to the civil war era where in the midst of the civil war, unscrupulous contractors had defrauded the Unions Army by selling it shoddy goods such as uniforms that disintegrated in the rain, artillery shells with gun powder laced with sawdust and rotted ships coated with fresh paint. God alone knows how much of such shoddy deals have been taking place in the Cameroon Army during the last 10 years of its war against Boko Haram as well as the last four years of the fight for the restoration of the Southern Cameroons, given the complete absence of ombudsmen within the military. At least serious shoddy deals have been reported by activists Whistleblowers in the diaspora.

The first whistleblowing indications in Cameroon surfaced in the 80s when rights activists, Albert Mukong and Gorji Dinka raised serious concerns about the consequences of mistreating minority Anglophones in this Union. Albert Mukong was maltreated and severely detained and released and later paid compensation. Gorji Dinka went on exile and stirred up the Ambazonian flames. The generation of Wilfred Tasang and Felix Agbor Balla relaunched the whistleblowing in 2016. Again, one was arrested and later released without compensation and, the other went on exile only to later be extradited back to prison in Yaounde, Cameroon.

Perhaps, a more befitting whistleblower case in Cameroon would be the 1999 Monchipou Seidou corruption scandal case brought on the floor of parliament by the SDF Group. Although till date, the SDF is still to disclose to the public who the whistleblower was, in order for him or her to be publicly recognized and awarded, and although President Paul Biya later came out to ask for proofs, it’s in record that Monchipou Seidou was later arrested and jailed alongside other top dignitaries. Since then, many more high profile regime barons have been detained on charges of corruption, embezzlement and mismanagement of public funds. This couldn’t have been possible without whistleblowing. We also know of the case of late Simon Nkwenti who gathered a group of youths in Bamenda, distributed whistles to them and they joined him in matching to Police station in Bamenda to blow whistles against Police malpractices. What about Tifang Peter, the Bamenda based leader of the consumer union, OCOSO, who single handedly took the contractor of the Ngeng Junction stretch of road to court for defrauding government instead of doing a good job and the contractor rather escaped from Cameroon before the case could effectively commence.

Given the dire consequences the world is currently facing for mishandling Whistleblowers in the spread of Covid19, the world needs to henceforth make protection of Whistleblowers, be it in the political domain as I have pointed out in the minority Anglophones situation, a top priority. The United Nations must quickly get back to work to reinforce and redraft protection mechanisms for Whistleblowers, including a standalone convention as well as optional protocols. The United Nations must do a better job by incentivizing Whistleblowers across the world and conditioning reconstruction aid to member countries after the COVID19 havoc, on their passing of local legislation promoting Whistleblowers both in public and private sectors as well as in the military.

This would be the only way the world could pay glowing tribute to Dr Li Wenliang, the Chinese Doctor who first raised the alarm bells on the dangers of coronavirus and later died of the virus.

I drink nantang that if such selfless individuals who risk their lives to protect public interests are not encouraged and protected, the world may get up one to find nobody.

The Muteff Boy’s Take

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