Fauci, the U.S. government’s top medical voice on the pandemic and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, now requires a personal security detail due to a torrent of threats to his safety. The anonymous online sources of those threats absurdly label him a Trump opponent and characterize his public health recommendations to contain the novel coronavirus as inaccurate and reflective of a politicized agenda. These allegations have prompted a stream of bilious online invective against Fauci, with hashtags like #FauciFraud and #FireFauci.
The online smears, threats, and disinformation against a public health official would be obscene under any circumstance — and they are especially so now, in light of the prudent, science-backed measures and precautions Fauci has championed to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. But these calumnies also underscore how health workers have become targets for people — official and unofficial, in the U.S. and worldwide — seeking to inhibit and undermine sound, evidence-based medicine that saves lives and alleviates suffering.
The earliest of these threats could be seen in the Chinese government’s persecution of medical whistleblowers in the pandemic’s original epicenter in Wuhan city. They include Dr. Li Wenliang, whose December 30, 2019 warning to the public via social media of the severity and contagiousness of the novel coronavirus resulted in police detaining him and threatening him into silence.
Another Wuhan-based whistleblower currently under threat is Dr. Ai Fen. She publicly disclosed two weeks ago that government officials had silenced her and other doctors, preventing them from publicly disclosing the severity of the outbreak. Ai has gone missing and is assumed to have been detained by the authorities. Revelations this week that the Chinese government has deliberately misrepresented the severity of the outbreak and its death toll in China perpetuate an environment in which Chinese doctors will continue to have to choose between honoring their professional ethics and risking official reprisals for doing so.
Government threats against health workers urging sound, science-based medical approaches to addressing the pandemic aren’t limited to Chinese authoritarians. Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has subjected his health minister, Dr. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, to withering criticism and threats of dismissal for questioning Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to adopt essential measures to mitigate the outbreak among Brazilians. Bolsonaro has sought to undermine Brazilian states’ lockdown measures designed to “flatten the curve” of infection by calling for Brazilians to return to work. Mandetta’s pleas that doing so would result in catastrophic loss of life from Covid-19 — one that he warned would “collapse” the country’s health system by the end of April — prompted Bolsonaro to respond: “Some will die. I’m sorry. That’s life.”
Other state leaders are demonstrating contempt for the expertise and lives of health workers by ignoring their pleas for a more robust state response to the worldwide shortages of medical personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks. An egregious example of this callous disregard came last week from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who called health workers who have contracted and even died from Covid-19 in the line of duty “lucky” because they “died for the country.”
Such politicized, anti-science backlash against health workers seeking to contain a deadly public health threat have disturbing and far-reaching implications — and they are everywhere. Even in the U.S., reports have surfaced of hospital staff being threatened with firing if they speak out publicly about the lack of resources — masks, gloves, and even tests for themselves and their growing rosters of patients. And it’s not just threats: As Bloomberg reported last week, the firings have already begun. “Hospitals are muzzling nurses and other health care workers in an attempt to preserve their image,” Ruth Schubert, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Nurses Association, told the news outlet. “It is outrageous.”
This is a time when we need our health workers to be fully engaged in their work and to have their fears and concerns given the highest consideration. The respective plights of Fauci and China’s health care whistleblowers, and the steamrolling of health workers’ concerns in the Philippines and Brazil, can have a pernicious chilling effect on health workers entrusted to ensure public health best practices in addressing the pandemic.
We need to stand with the doctors, nurses, public health specialists, and others who are leading efforts to address the pandemic. And that requires ensuring that medical science, public health best practices — and the professional health workers who implement them — are supported, not threatened or silenced.
Phelim Kine oversees the research and investigations team at Physicians for Human Rights, a U.S.-based non-profit organization using medicine and science to document and advocate against mass atrocities and human rights violations globally.