Chinese police released journalist Fang Bin this week after three years of detention for writing about COVID-19 in the earliest days of the pandemic.
Government-led attacks can be the most dangerous types of retaliation because corrupt officials can and do use their positions of authority to exact revenge on those who expose them.
Nixon’s people tried to poison Vietnam whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg with LSD before a major speech at a peace conference. The intent wasn’t to kill him, but rather to make him seem crazy. They also ransacked his psychiatrist’s office, charged him with treason, and tried to “assassinate” him in the press.
"They used to say nobody got hurt in Watergate," Ellsberg told NBC News in 2017. "That was not because they didn't try."
Donald Trump targeted Ukraine whistleblower Alexander Vindman, removing him and his twin brother from their positions and engaging in a targeted harassment and defamation campaign against the decorated Lt. Colonel, who has been awarded 15 medals for his service, including a Purple Heart.
The extreme lengths governments will go to silence those who threaten their power might be best summarized by retaliation against COVID-19 whistleblowers.
During COVID-19, nations and even states retaliated against those who exposed their governments mishandling or negligence during the outbreak.
Perhaps the most infamous examples come from China during the earliest days of the pandemic.
Eight doctors were interrogated and threatened by Chinese police for whistleblowing about the virus. Several of them were detained.
Dr. Li Wenliang was forced by China’s central government to sign a police statement stating his Facebook post about warning about the virus was “illegal.” He later contracted COVID-19 and died at the age of 34.
Dr. Ai Fen disappeared for several months in 2020 after saying her supervisors tried to silence her early warnings about the virus. Journalists in China used code and emojis to transmit her information about the pandemic. In 2021, after what Chinese dissidents claimed was an intentional attack on Fen, she was blinded in one eye during surgery, became depressed, and eventually had a nervous breakdown.
Targeting whistleblowers about COVID-19 became an American phenomenon not long after, with more than a dozen high-profile cases of whistleblower retaliation related to COVID-19 by June 2020:
Dr. Rick Bright HHS, fired for filing a whistleblower complaint demonstrating how the Trump administration ignored his early warnings about the virus. The federal government settled with Bright more than a year later, and now serves as Senior Vice President of Pandemic Prevention and Response at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Dr. Ming Lin, Seattle, fired or discussing inadequate equipment and testing
Nurse Lauri Mazurkiewicz, Chicago, fired for asking colleagues to wear a mask while on duty
Navy Captain Brett Crozier, fired for writing a letter about the Navy’s failure to provide resources to combat the virus on his ship. Crozier ended up staying in the Navy and retiring after 30 years of service with full benefits two years later.
Florida data chief Rebekah Jones, fired for refusing to post misleading data to the state’s surveillance dashboard. Jones was the inspiration for the COVID-19 Whistleblower Protection Act after her home was raided in December 2020, and her lawsuit was filed in March 2023.
Amazon employee Christian Smalls, fired for saying the company wasn’t doing enough to protect workers. Smalls went on to lead the effort to unionize Amazon warehouses in one of the most successful union campaigns and labor rights movements in modern history.
Since the start of the pandemic, the National Whistleblower Center has tracked 2,665 whistleblower suits against state governments and 6,946 suits against federal agencies.