The detention in Egypt of nine doctors and paramedical personnel is only the latest attack on doctors dealing with the corona virus pandemic. The doctors were denouncing the deaths of front-line health care workers, as the country is struggling to control the pandemic and energize the economy with limited resources.
The doctors were also critical of the lack of means to fight the pandemic and criticized the government’s response to this emergency. Egypt joins other countries such as China, Pakistan, Russia and the United States, where doctors were detained, fired or harassed for criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Traditionally, doctors have been whistleblowers. In 1865, Rudolf Virchow, a German physician, writer, scientist and politician, harshly criticized the government for investing in the military instead of education and in eliminating poverty. Virchow is credited with the creation of Germany’s first public health programs.
According to legend, after a particularly severe attack by Virchow, prime minister Otto von Bismarck felt personally affronted, and sent seconds to Virchow’s laboratory to challenge him to a duel. Bismarck’s officials found him working on Trichinella spiralis, the smallest nematode parasite of humans and one of the most clinically important parasites in the world. The parasite is responsible for the disease Trichinosis, which was causing ravages in Germany, and Virchow was working on the best way to control it.
‘“Oh,’” said Virchow, “’a challenge from Prince Bismarck, eh? Well, since I am the challenged party, I suppose I have the choice of weapons. Here they are!’” He showed his visitors two large sausages which seemed to be exactly alike. “’One of these sausages’,” said Virchow, “’is filled with Trichinella spiralis —it is deadly. The other is perfectly wholesome. Externally, they cannot be told apart. Let his Excellency do me the honor to choose whichever he wishes and eat it, and I will eat the other one.’” No duel was more quickly cancelled. The incident is informally known as The Great Sausage Duel of 1865.
Another well-known case is that of British doctor Judith Mackay, who in the 1960s spoke against tobacco companies when she studied the impact of smoking on people’s health in Hong Kong. When she asked the government to adopt stricter regulations, she received death threats, was insulted, and the tobacco multinational companies tried to discredit her research. She is one of medicine’s modern heroes.
The coronavirus pandemic underscores the work of thousands of doctors and health workers who have been risking their lives to take care of those afflicted by the coronavirus. Early during the pandemic, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist based in the central Chinese city of Wuhan warned fellow doctors of a new disease at his hospital in the last days of December 2019. The disease’s symptoms were similar to SARS, and he warned his colleagues to wear protective equipment to prevent the infection.
Four days after his warning, security forces came to his house and accused him of making “false comments” and acting illegally to alter social order. He was obliged to sign a statement agreeing not to discuss the disease further. Within a week he was infected himself and two weeks later the world was talking about the new disease, now identified as a coronavirus infection. Dr. Li Wenliang, died on February 7, 2020. The same government who had harassed him said, “Li Wenliang is one member of the medical team who fought heroically and made contributions and sacrifices in the epidemic control effort.”
In the United States, while citizens line their windows to applaud the work of health workers nationwide, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has become the target of an online conspiracy theory stating that he is mobilizing to undermine the president. At the same time, some Republican lawmakers try to question his credibility. No other medical person is more respected than him by the public at large. Biting the hands of doctors who, against all odds, try to control the spread of the infection is a path to self-destruction.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant.