Early COVID-19 Whistleblowers Must Be Heard, Says AHF

In Global Advocacy, Global Featured by Fiona Ip

Photo: Dr. Li Wenliang (left) and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan

As the Geneva-based 74th World Health Assembly (WHA) meets virtually this week, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the world’s largest provider of HIV/AIDS care globally, calls for the initial whistleblowers of the novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China to be made available for interviews immediately—preferably outside of China.

China has been criticized since late 2019, at the onset of COVID-19, for attempting to cover up the origins of the outbreak by jailing and silencing whistleblowers for trying to warn colleagues and the world about a mysterious virus. Two doctors, Dr. Ai Fen and Dr. Li Wenliang, were among those censored by authorities. Dr. Li lost his battle with COVID-19 on Feb. 7, 2020, after contracting the virus from a patient the previous month.

“We don’t know if this outbreak was a lab accident, but we do know that its origin is being hidden and has been shrouded in secrecy since the beginning,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “With nearly 3.5 million COVID-19 deaths globally, China owes the world the truth about the outbreak’s origins. Doctors Li and Ai were only two of several individuals who first tried to sound the alarm on the novel coronavirus—they must all be free to tell their stories. The world deserves to know how this happened to help stop the current pandemic and prevent others in the future.”

Dr. Li was one of eight people detained in Wuhan for “spreading rumors,” according to an article in The Lancet. Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was also jailed for her early COVID-19 reporting in Wuhan—another example of efforts by authorities to impede and obscure global investigations into COVID-19’s origins and its spread at the start of the outbreak. Since Zhang’s imprisonment, there have been reports of her continued protests in confinement.

“Complete transparency is a must. The individuals who were detained, along with any others, including Ms. Zhang, who have firsthand knowledge of the origins of COVID-19, must be immediately allowed to speak—where they are free from the intimidation and censorship of Chinese officials,” added Weinstein. “Health care workers on the frontlines are the world’s first line of defense against infectious disease outbreaks. By not gathering and utilizing data from all their knowledge and experiences, the world is put at much greater risk—as we’ve seen all too clearly with this pandemic.”

The more than 190 health ministers, who are members of the WHA, must raise their voices and demand that China be completely transparent, including providing all relevant information without interference. These actions would allow an independent panel to discover the truth about the origins of COVID-19, which has disrupted the lives of citizens across WHA member states and caused devastation to the health and economic systems in their respective countries.

AHF echoes Dr. Li’s words just days before his death. “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency,” said Li in an interview with The New York Times. In February 2020, AHF memorialized Dr. Li’s courage and sacrifice by naming its Asia Bureau office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in his honor.

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AHF: The World Health Assembly Must Demand Transparency from China on COVID-19