Better late than never. After the authorities failed to protect a doctor in Wuhan who first rang the alarm bells on the novel Coronavirus, Beijing's city council has passed a new law that would protect medical professionals with "non-malicious" intent.

The new law that was passed only at a local level in China's capital city will now protect doctors and health workers who warn authorities of an imminent health crisis. Not only their safety and legal rights will be protected but they will also be rewarded if their findings are proven true.

Coronavirus
The new law will encourage health workers to come forward with crucial information that could help deal with an outbreak early (representational picture) Xinhua/IANS

Honoring Dr Li Wenliang

The law was passed months after an ophthalmologist in Wuhan Dr Li Wenliang first warned about the emerging Coronavirus cases in December 2019 on Chinese social media platforms. Dr Ai Fen, the Director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, posted information about an emerging virus that was SARS-like. He shared a diagnostic report on a WeChat group showing that patients had pneumonia. Dr Li shared it further, drawing the city authorities' ire.

Instead of supporting him and investing his claims, Wuhan's city authorities detained Dr Li and silenced him by forcing him to sign papers agreeing to "rumor-mongering". However, when Dr Li passed away due to Coronavirus infection in February, Wuhan's city officials were accused of a coverup.

Amid the massive online backlashes on the social media platforms, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) acknowledged that there were shortcomings in early handling of the COVID-19 outbreak that later turned into a pandemic, killing nearly a million people worldwide and infecting over 33 million. The new law in some ways will honor the whistleblowers like Dr Li and Dr Ai Fen.

Li Wenliang
Wuhan's Dr Li Wenliang and the letter of admonition he received from the Wuhan Police Bureau ordering him to stop spreading rumors about Coronavirus Weibo/ Wikimedia Commons

New Law

With China being the home to two deadly outbreaks (SARS and novel Coronavirus) in the last two decades, the authorities realized the need for an early warning system that would not be restricted by bureaucracy and the top-down political system. Under the new law, a health worker can break the chain of command and directly report an emerging health emergency to government officials without fear of being reprimanded.

Even if the information turns out to be untrue, the whistleblower will not be punished. Beijing officials believe the protective law will free the flow of information. In addition, Beijing's local government said that it would set up "sentries" at the community level for keeping an eye on symptoms like fever while strengthening the monitoring system overall, reported The Edge Markets.

However, the new law doesn't come as a relief for non-health workers. They can still be punished for "fabricating or deliberately disseminating false information" as per a government notice. Since the Coronavirus pandemic began, hundreds of Chinese citizens have been punished for spreading false information.

In addition, experts believe even the new law is not enough to address systemic flaws in China's top-down political system as the local governments do not have enough authority or the funding to identify early signs and take action that could prevent outbreaks in the future.

Yet, the new law is a welcome change and a first of its kind in China's authoritarian system. A similar law was passed in Shenzhen that would protect non-malicious whistleblowers.