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Blowing a whistle at the World Health Organization: Lessons for Italy and beyond

Francesco Zambon suffered retaliation for reporting wrongdoing at the WHO; now there’s a civil society coalition behind him

Photo: Stefano Guidi / Shutterstock.com

Transparency Int'l

In May 2020, at a time when the Italian people were still battling with the devastating first COVID-19 wave, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report investigating Italy’s pandemic preparedness.

The report aimed to provide lessons for countries not yet affected by the virus. It reportedly found that Italy’s pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006, and that hospitals’ initial response was improvised and chaotic. The report and its important findings about the state of public health in Italy quickly made headlines, but the WHO withdrew it the very next day for unknown reasons.

Only a few months later was it reported that a senior WHO official Ranieri Guerra allegedly threatened the study’s lead researcher Francesco Zambon with dismissal unless he modified references to Italy’s outdated pandemic plan. Guerra had previously served as Director of Prevention at Italy’s Health Ministry from 2013 to 2017 and would have therefore had the responsibility for updating the plan to reflect international guidelines.

Worried about the report’s scientific integrity and Guerra’s potential conflict of interest, Zambon registered his concerns with managers and the WHO Ethics Office, in line with the organisation’s policies. This was followed by months of silence, unsatisfactory feedback and no internal inquiry. Meanwhile, Zambon’s working conditions became intolerable. Increasingly undermined, isolated and demoted, in March 2021 he resigned.

Widespread fear of reporting corruption

Worryingly, this is an all-too-familiar story. Whistleblowers often face retaliation for trying to expose wrongdoing, rather than receiving the protection they are entitled to.

According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer – European Union (EU), 45 per cent fear retaliation for speaking up against corruption. In Italy, Zambon’s home country, 58 per cent say they would fear reprisals in response to reporting wrongdoing.

Corruption affects every country in the EU, and the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening matters. Our new survey shows that people are well aware of key corruption issues and want their leaders to act with more integrity.

Global Corruption Barometer – EU 2021

Calling for urgent reform

When staff at the Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) run by Transparency International Italy heard about Zambon’s case, they were immediately concerned. In addition to the apparent suppression of a scientific report important to global public health, they noticed serious flaws in the WHO’s whistleblowing policy.

In response, Transparency International joined with the Whistleblowing International Network and the Government Accountability Project to write to the president and members of the World Health Assembly in May 2021. We asked them to ensure an independent review of Zambon’s disclosures and a commitment from the WHO to reform its whistleblowing mechanisms to guarantee protection and justice for future whistleblowers.

Civil society organisations are concerned by what appears to be the suppression of a scientific report of great public interest. The alleged retaliation against the whistleblower who reported his concerns highlights serious failures of the WHO's whistleblowing policy.

WHO: Ensure accountability in Francesco Zambon's case

It was not only civil society who became concerned. An external auditor’s report also flagged a steep rise in complaints of misconduct at the WHO. The auditor recommended that the organisation strengthens its measures for preventing and punishing wrongdoing like retaliation and corruption.

Whistleblowing crucial in a crisis

Although the issue remains ongoing, the case has drawn attention to the public’s right to know, and to whistleblowers’ right to speak up safely. During crises – such as the COVID-19 pandemic or natural disasters – the need for urgent action can undermine integrity of government action. But strong, well-implemented whistleblowing systems are especially important in such situations, encouraging people to expose wrongdoing when lives are at stake.

A man in a COVID-19 mask, walking by the Colosseum in Rome, Italy

In March, Transparency International called on the G20 under the Italian presidency to redouble its efforts to deliver on its promise to ensure a swift, sustainable and corruption-free recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, including by strengthening whistleblower protections.

How the G20 can help COVID-19 recovery in 2021

Enabling people to play their part

Transparency International and its partners will continue to seek accountability in Zambon’s case and proper recognition of the global public interest in his disclosures.

As the agency responsible for international public health, the WHO must remove any barriers to reporting misconduct which could impact on people’s well-being worldwide. We were pleased that these calls resulted in the World Health Assembly agreeing to study independent experts’ recommendations for bold reforms to strengthen the agency.

Our research shows that 64 per cent of EU residents believe ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption. Italians are especially hopeful, where 85 per cent think so.

Knowing they can safely blow the whistle on wrongdoing is key to encouraging people to report corruption when they see it and, by doing so, to drive positive change. This is essential if people are to play their central role in preventing corruption.

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