Whistleblower Protection in the COVID-19 era

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic in December 2019, a large number of whistleblowers have suffered retaliatory actions and punishment from their employers for daring to air opinions about unethical practices, corruption and public safety issues. In China, for example, coronavirus whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang allegedly breached disclosure agreement by warning colleagues of the looming pandemic and sharing the information on social media. Internet users praised his courage against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But he was immediately arrested and detailed for many days, with allegations of “spreading false rumours” and “seriously disrupting public order.” In January 2020, the 34-year-old tested positive to COVID-19 and died in early February. His death sparked outrage in China, particularly against the government’s powerful internal anti-corruption setup.

Wenliang was eventually exonerated. After an investigative committee set up by the Chinese government bowed to protests from human rights activists (mostly millions of social media users who supported corporate whistleblowing), the reprimand against him was withdrawn. But about eight more citizens were reported disciplined for breaching the law with regards to their involvement in spreading rumours about the virus. The World Health Organization (WHO) did not declare coronavirus a global health emergency until March 2020. Most of the Chinese doctors that worked with Wenliang on the novel coronavirus are speculated to be dead. This analysis explains the crucial role of whistleblowing as a globally-accepted control mechanism on corporate governance. Unfortunately, recurring incidents of retaliatory actions against whistleblowers during the coronavirus pandemic indicate the current protections available are flawed, ineffective and poorly implemented in almost every country.

Whistleblower protection needs to be strengthened through an extensive consultation and debate among relevant stakeholders in every government. In Nigeria and Canada, the absence of whistleblowing culture in private and public sectors is a major setback in disaster risk management—as seen during the coronavirus pandemic—and the huge financial and human costs are immeasurable. Further, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) established Whistleblower Protection Fund with N50 million for the purpose of supporting the fight against corruption, fraud and mismanagement. But unlike the mirrored UK protection law, which is responsible for the whistleblowing achievements in Ghana and Jamaica, the adapted Nigerian framework has yielded insignificant results. The problem is an absence of ethical standards and culture of whistleblowing among Nigerians. In addition, whistleblowing causes disruptions in organizations, leading to loss of investors and earnings—with noticeable dents on its credibility and public image. For these reasons, organizations always attempt to suppress actions from insiders and observers who consider it a moral and legal obligation to publicly report any perceived and/or actual cases of unethical practices.

Whistleblowing in corporate governance therefore serves as a preventive measure against fraud, corruption and mismanagement. But anonymous whistleblowing should be encouraged to avoid punishment from employers where existing protection mechanisms are not effective. For example, most hospitals in the United States and other countries are alleged to have warned, disciplined and even fired staff members (including doctors and nurses) who went public with workplace concerns about coronavirus precautions. This research aims at examining the loopholes in whistleblower protection laws and how the identified weaknesses enabled violation of human rights to the detriment of public health safety during COVID-19 pandemic.

To achieve the main purposes of whistleblowing, each country needs peculiar, unified whistleblower law such as Australia’s integrated system which includes the Corporations Act, Banking Act, Insurance Act, Life Insurance Act and Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act. In addition, corporate whistleblowing must: (1) be made in “good faith” to qualify as a protected disclosure, (b) not offend or contravene rights of corporations and financial services legislation, or violate any other governmental law which may be punishable, (ii) and, not involve conduct that represents a danger to the public or financial system. This study on the listed areas of corporate whistleblowing with certainly add to the body of knowledge and provide foundational guide for more inquiries on the subject.

From the results of this study, recommendations will be made on how governments can improve legal frameworks to protect whistleblowers, build trust among employees and observers, revitalise whistleblowing channels, improve corporate compliance and prevent unnecessary loss of lives in the future – as would have been the case if the Chinese government had taken responsibility to protect its citizens and the world, long before Li Wenliang’s public outcry.