Protect alerters, protect everyone's health


The Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) is pleased to publish this English translation of 
Dr. Suelette Dreyfus and Bruno Galizzi’s article featured in infoLibre on whistleblowing during COVID-19 in Spain. 
Dr. Suelette Dreyfus is the Executive Director of Blueprint for Free Speech and Bruno Galizzi is a Research and Assessment Fellow at Blueprint for Free Speech. Blueprint for Free Speech is an Associate member of the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN).
Published: 22nd of May 2020

Protect alerters, protect everyone's health

The worldwide spread of the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of alerters like never before. The medical community caught a glimpse of the dark emergence of the virus when Dr. Li Wenliang from China tried to warn colleagues about the disease. Like many, he suffered retaliation from local officials for telling his community unpleasant truths. The highest levels of government intervened to rehabilitate his reputation only when he had died from the virus. Alerters from around the world are revealing irregularities that are hidden by governments, companies and institutions. They reveal when health workers are put at risk for lacking the proper protective equipment; They tell us when the supply chains that bring us food – or medical supplies - are being tampered with or corrupted, etc. For this reason, more than 100 civil society organizations, journalism, unions and experts from around the world released a statement asking to protect the alerters in times of COVID-19. The letter emphasizes the centrality of citizens and workers in "guaranteeing that proper accountability is maintained in our governments, corporate institutions and markets, and in the defense of their human rights and the freedoms of all people."

Neither heroes nor martyrs

In Spain, the State Confederation of Medical Unions (CESM) has filed a complaint with the Supreme Court about the distribution of defective medical material, based on situations that have been experienced at the local level. Not surprisingly, unions are valuable institutions to which an alerter could turn to report a fact, particularly on public health and safety.

Although this is not always the case in Spain, many unions and organizations have exposed the lack or non-compliance of protection measures, or the lack of means to fight the virus, unleashing the #NiHĂ©roesNiMartires trend. Protecting those who alert, in this case, also saves lives . The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control ( ECDC ) places Spain among the countries with the highest percentage of infected among its health personnel. Even when we applaud them from our balconies every day, healthcare workers continue to face a double vulnerability at the same time: contagion and retaliation. In fact, in recent weeks, many have been exposed to prevent or combat crimes or irregularities. The lack of protection they have contrasts, without a doubt, with the value that the public interest complaints they share provide us. Something that does not happen only in the field of health care , as we have seen in the globally known case of Tim Bay, Amazon's vice president, who decided to leave one of the most powerful companies after having witnessed the dismissal of employees who had denounced the vulnerabilities of workers in the warehouses of the technological giant.

Just a fight against corruption?

Some organizations are recognizing the vital value of protecting alerters for the duration of the pandemic, not afterward. The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has recently released a series of legal references to prevent and fight corruption during this period. They recognize that fraudulent practices have an effect on medical services, making them more expensive and of lower quality, leading to unequal access to them, to the detriment of the most vulnerable populations. The report again points out that the protection of alerters is essential to prevent the effect of corruption on public institutions and the management of funds. Once again, protecting those who warn against corruption also saves lives , since it allows strengthening the health system by protecting those who report corruption from within. Let's not forget that the economic costs of corruption for Spain have been estimated by different sources, reaching 90 billion euros, according to a report published by the Los Verdes / ALE alliance in the European Parliament, defining it as 90% of public health spending by 2018. But the protection of alerters goes further, and has an effect on the protection of the environment, nuclear safety, transport, the quality of products, distribution chains and, as we have already seen, public health. This is recognized by the rapporteur of the Committee on Legal Affairs of the European Parliament Sylvain Waserman, in his latest report last October. In Poland, Andrzej Hawranek, Director of the State Health Inspectorate, reported the lack of sufficient evidence to determine the spread of the virus in the city of Krakow. Thanks to his publications on the local situation, he forced the health and epidemiological units to report daily on the situation. The knowledge and democratization of public, updated and reliable information on the state of the pandemic is essential to be able to carry out successful and tailored management. Protecting alerters and our right to know also saves lives.

Towards the new normality, protecting those who protect us

In a bitter irony, Spain is one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus and, at the same time, one of the few countries in the European Union that does not have a national law to protect alerters. Now is the time to change that. The transposition of the European Directive 2019/1937 is an opportunity to incorporate legal provisions at the national level, and promote a cultural change to provide citizens with mechanisms for active participation in the protection of the public interest. Last February, when the world was yet another, Blueprint for Free Speech organized together with the National Commission of Markets and Competition a public event bringing together spokespersons and representatives of political parties precisely to discuss this matter. That event was the first time that a wide and diverse party table (Ciudadanos, Esquerra Republicana, Partido Popular, Unidas Podemos, Vox) sat publicly in Madrid to discuss protection of alerters. Different positions were heard, some of them distant from what was established by the aforementioned European Directive, but all recognized the complete need to protect alerters in an integral way. Civil society was once again ahead of the interests of legislators proposing various alternatives that were waiting to be debated, one of them currently on the Table of Congress. In this period of de-escalation and transition to the "new normal" one cannot look the other way. The iron and urgent commitment must be doubled to protect the alerters , who have demonstrated to promote a more just and democratic operation of the institutions, in defense of our fundamental and human rights.
This is a translation of an article that was published in Spanish in infoLibre on the 19th of May 2020 and can be read here.
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