• Juhui Oh

Detaining the Doctors: COVID-19 crisis shed light on false leadership of authorities

What should doctors do if they are running out of gears to fight against the pandemic? Or if the entire healthcare system of the country is about to collapse? 

The answer may seem obvious: Report the supply shortage on protective gear and suggest strategies to save the medical system from a total failure. However, this question may not be as easy to answer for doctors busy fighting against COVID-19 at the frontline, since they should protect themselves from not only the fatal virus, but also the government. With more cases of arbitrary detention of doctors being reported day by day, fundamental human rights of doctors fighting against COVID-19 are at stake. 

Since its outbreak in December of 2019 from Wuhan, China, a novel virus COVID-19 has deteriorated every aspect of our lives, from economic activities to social gatherings. As of today, more than 89,000 death tolls have been reported, and about 1.5 million cases have been confirmed (WHO, 2020). Due to its high transmission rate, most countries failed to control the community spread in the early stage. This led to a panic buying of daily necessities, and violent crimes targeting a specific population. 

Amid this chaos, many governments attempted to scale down many confirmed cases in the country to prevent consequential social disorder. They also forced their doctors to cure patients without adequate equipment, as masks and nitrogen gloves prices skyrocketed. Doctors who truthfully reported the grim situation and criticized collapsing healthcare systems of the country were often arrested and accused of obstruction of justice for refusing work without any protective gear (Amnesty International, 2020).

One of the most notable mistreatments of doctors was reported in Wuhan, China, where  COVID-19 first appeared. Dr. Li Wenling, an opthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital, was unreasonably arrested by the Chinese government for telling the truth to the public. In December, he sent out text messages through WeChat, Chinese Whatsapp, warning his fellow doctors about an unknown virus that his patients were suffering from. Four days after that, he was arrested by the Chinese police under a charge of severe disturbance of social disorder, meaning that he had caused unnecessary social anxiety. According to the BBC, he could be released only after signing “yes” to the following statement: “We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice- is that understood?” (Hegarty, 2020). 

Doctors in Russia also could not avoid arbitrary arrest and detention. A doctor called Anastasia Vasilyeva, an activist in the Alliance Doctors Union, was arrested by the police in early April. All she did was transport protective gear that doctors in Moscow could wear to protect themselves from infection. She was carrying 500 masks, sanitizers, gloves, and protective glasses. Yet she was accused of non-compliance with the rules with the conduct to prevent and liquidate an emergency and it took two full-court trials for her to be released. Her arrest was fatal, considering that community spread in Russia was just a matter of time. Moreover, not long after she was released, Vasilyeva was detained again after revealing her opinion on the Russian government in a tweet. She claimed the government is not reporting an accurate number of confirmed cases. According to Ivan Konovalov, from the Alliance of Doctors, she was physically assaulted to an extent where she fainted briefly during the interrogation process. (Toi et al, 2010). 

In Pakistan, similarly, on April 7th, doctors were brutally beaten and detained after their protest against the lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipments). The day after a publication of a report, which outlines that 13 out of 54 death cases were doctors infected due to lack of equipment, dozens of Pakistani doctors marched from a local hospital to the provincial chief minister’s office in Balochistan and refused to work. The result was the arrest of at least 67 doctors on-site, which was soon followed by a total of 150 arrests. Still, the doctors are behind bars, accused of not being responsible for their work in an emergency (Shed, 2020).

One thing to be noted here is that while it’s essential to force governments not to detain doctors with wild accusations to cover up flaws in their healthcare system, the role of the public is critical in bringing a change once this kind of social injustice happens. Social media can be useful to publicize the issue and urge the governments to release the victims. 

For both Dr. Li Wenling and Dr. Vasilyeva, social media posts from victims’ acquaintances and professionals in the same field played a huge role in deterring the governments from taking further actions against the victims. A Youtube video capturing how Dr. Li Wenling warns about the severity of COVID-19, and how unprepared the Chinese healthcare system is to respond to such a disease, earned great popularity, gaining about 3.3 million views (CNN News, 2020). Mainly after BBC News and CNN News covered his story, the Chinese government received worldwide criticism for punishing a coronavirus whistleblower. This forced the Chinese government to be more prudent in detaining or punishing doctors. 

The case of Dr. Vasileyva also became known to a larger audience as famous figures started commenting on the issue. A politician, Alexei Navalny, supported Vasilevya tweeting, “Why are they harassing this person because she brought masks for the doctors? Bastards.” (Toi et al, 2020) Natalia Zviagnia, Amnesty International’s Russia Director, too stated that it is “staggering that the Russian authorities appear to fear criticism more than the deadly COVID-19 pandemic”(Amnesty International, 2020). These responses from the public put pressure on the Russian government to start resolving the national crisis by securing more medical equipment, not by eliminating individual doctors who attempt to inform people of the situation and help. 

Most countries already do not have sufficient medical resources to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the time for governments to keep in mind that oppressing doctors’ worrisome reports and detaining them is not the smartest choice they could make to tide over the difficulties. Unreflective arrestment of doctors due to political reasons can always backfire, as it would be a short-cut to regression in both human rights and disease management. 


CNN News (2020), Coronavirus whistleblower doctor is online hero in China. Retrieved from

Hegarty, S. (2020, February 6). The Chinese doctor who tried to warn others about coronavirus. Retrieved from

Amnesty International (2020), Russian authorities detain doctor who exposed flaws in COVID-19 response. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from laws-in-covid19-response/

Shed (2020, April 7), Doctors arrested in Pakistan during Covid-19 supplies protest. Retrieved from out-lack-equipment-fight

Toi, Gross, J., Geller, A., Horovitz, D., Magid, J., Lawless, J., . . . Jta. (2020, April 03). Russia detains activist doctor who told 'Zman Yisrael' Moscow lying about virus. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from

WHO, Coronavirus. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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