Heroes do not have a voice

The Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) is delighted to publish this English translation of Marcin Waszak's powerful piece on whistleblowing during COVID-19 in Poland.

The Stefan Batory Foundation is an Associate of WIN.  This is an important issue in Poland and globally. WIN is working with all its Members and Associates who continue to highlight the critical importance of whistleblowers during this global emergency.

Published: 22nd of April 2020

Heroes do not have a voice

All of Poland is applauding healthcare workers for their heroism and backbreaking work - they are heroes of our time. Yet, for the authorities, they are only heroes as long as they do not question official statements or the actions of their superiors, and as long as they do not call for their own safety, or that of their patients, to be protected. If they do, they become seen as disloyal workers for whom there is no place within the healthcare system.

Reports of the lack of basic protective equipment and breaches of hospital procedure are reaching the public. These voices are the expression of despair of the very people upon whom society’s wellbeing now depends the most. These are not made-up stories or idle talk–these whistleblowers’ warnings foretell disasters, such as the mass contamination of medical staff at healthcare institutions and nursing homes.

Intimidate and silence
Defying both law and logic, those who reveal the true scale of neglect and errors across Poland’s healthcare system have been silenced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Polish Ombudsman is now intervening in an increasing number of cases in which medical personnel have faced disciplinary action as a consequence of speaking out about the situation hospitals and care facilities, including the shortage of protective materials and life-saving equipment.

Any ban or limitation on the ability for healthcare workers and medical specialists to speak out is a violation of civil liberties and the constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and the right to obtain and disseminate information. This pandemic does not justify the curtailing or violation of these fundamental rights. On the contrary, it is during a crisis of this magnitude that citizens need access to more reliable and readily available information. The government should not usurp the right to be the only source of such information; as the recent shift in official recommendations on the of wearing masks shows, government assessment is not infallible.

Even Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has not been spared with its former lawmaker Bernadeta Krynicka having her membership rights suspended for publicly criticising government plans to transform the facilities where she is employed into a hospital for infectious diseases. A midwife from Nowy Targ has been treated even worse when dismissed on disciplinary grounds for posting on social media how medical staff are being exposed to the virus. Getting rid of healthcare workers at a time when the state needs them most and for simply speaking out about the current situation sounds like a grim joke. All the more absurd given their reports merely confirm the same concerns organisations such as the Supreme Medical Council is sounding the alarm on.

Healthcare workers are being exposed twice
Over 90 civil society organisations from multiple countries recently published a coalition statement highlighting the importance of whistleblowers and their critical role during the COVID-19 crisis - a time when individual rights are suspended and the authorities grant themselves extraordinary powers. The signatories emphasise that limiting freedom of speech primarily affects those most exposed to the effects of the pandemic. Those individuals who pay the highest price for being deprived of the right to express their opinions will include healthcare workers on the frontline of the struggle against the virus, often with insufficient protective equipment. Their situation is particularly difficult due to increased risk of infection and lack of financial security. Medical rescuers and nurses are often self-employed, working on fixed-term contracts with no right to paid overtime or even paid leave whilst having to self-quarantine. They have a lot of things to say about working conditions at hospitals, which are the very conditions of which decision-makers planning the response to the virus should be aware. Deprived of the ability to safely draw attention to problems at their workplace without risking their jobs and livelihoods, some resort to alerting the media, and thus the public, anonymously.

Criticism results in remedies
Despite the extreme adverse conditions faced by whistleblowers in the healthcare system, their disclosures are provoking responsive action from the authorities. The case of Andrzej Hawranek, a director at the State Sanitary Inspectorate, demonstrates that alerting the public can result in positive action. His tweets concerning the lack of coronavirus testing in Krak√≥w mobilised the local sanitary-epidemiological station to begin publishing daily updates on the matter. In response to media coverage of the numerous concerns being raised by medical staff, the National Health Fund has launched a specialised helpline to report breaches in the treatment of coronavirus patients. The Fund has announced that every report it receives will be investigated. Whilst it is difficult to comment on the initiative’s impact, we can ask why channels for medical staff to report violations were not in operation much earlier. They may have prevented some of the organisational weaknesses of Poland’s healthcare system which are now being very much felt.

The EU Directive on the protection of people who report breaches of Union law which, amongst other things, requires that public institutions establish whistleblowing procedures and take corrective action, should lead to positive changes. The Batory Foundation, in coalition with other civil society organisations, also presented its own draft law on the comprehensive protection of whistleblowers in 2017. Despite this campaign of civil society however, the Polish government is currently hesitating to implement the Directive.

The Ministry of Health has now admitted that the midwife from Nowy Targ should not have been dismissed. A declaration which is, for the time-being, purely symbolic given the whistleblower’s situation has not changed since her contract was terminated.

At the same time, the Ministry has not withdrawn the ban on publicly voicing opinions on the epidemiological situation imposed on regional consultants. No one is holding those who threaten healthcare workers with punishment accountable, and those who retaliate against whistleblowers are not facing disciplinary action. This does not encourage medical staff to openly communicate the threats they – and their patients - are facing on a daily basis.

We ask, are the heroes supposed to keep their mouths shut?

Should protective masks become the symbol of how they are being silenced?

Marcin Waszak

This is a translation of an article that was published on the Batory Foundation’s forumIdei blog on 10 April 2020: https://www.batory.org.pl/blog_wpis/bohaterowie-nie-maja-glosu/

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