A Chinese doctor named Li Wenliang who warned the nation of a mysterious new virus has died, shortly after being questioned by Chinese authorities.
Dr. Li Wenliang, an opthamologist in the city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus, died on Friday, February 7th, the Wuhan Central Hospital reported. He was 34 years old and expecting a child with his wife.
Li was one of the very first people in China to raise alarm about the coronavirus, warning his medical school classmates in a chat room last December that patients at his hospital were being quarantined. At the time, he warned of a virus that had symptoms similar to SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, as the coronavirus had not been named and identified yet. He contracted the illness from one of his patients, whom he had been treating for glaucoma, shortly after speaking out about the virus.
Last month, after initial reports of the virus started surfacing, he was questioned by Chinese authorities and forced to sign a statement denouncing his warnings and referring to them as mere rumor. He has since acquired something akin to heroic status in China, with many framing him as an early whistleblower and a tragic victim of Chinese censorship efforts attempting to diminish the threat of the virus.
“We will not forget the doctor who spoke up about an illness that was called rumor,” a commenter on the Chinese social platform Weibo said following the announcement of his death. “What else can we do? The only thing is not to forget.”
Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong told the South China Morning Post that his death could be a catalyst among people in China. “It is a very big crisis. China’s public opinion was divided, but this time a consensus has been formed. The public share the same attitude and harbor the sentiments of sympathy, suppression and grieving anger,” he said. “I am worried that the situation could explode, or become like when [former Communist Party general secretary] Hu Yaobang died or even more serious.” As the publication notes: “Hu’s death on April 15, 1989, triggered mass protests that later morphed into the Tiananmen student movement.”
Since it was identified last month, novel coronavirus has claimed more than 630 lives around the globe, with nearly 31,000 cases reported in countries from Germany to the Phillippines to India to the United States. The majority of the cases have been in China, with the city of Wuhan identified as the epicenter of the virus. It is believed the virus may have originated from a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, a city with more than 11 million people. Over the past two weeks, Wuhan has been on lockdown, with its inhabitants largely staying at home to avoid contracting the illness and drone footage showing the city largely deserted.
The Chinese government has faced extensive criticism for ramping up censorship efforts in recent months, in an apparent effort to curb public panic surrounding the virus. Many believe that authorities could have prevented the rapid spread of the virus had it been more transparent in its efforts to fight it. “This was an issue of inaction,” Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the New York Times. “There was no action in Wuhan from the local health department to alert people to the threat.”
This line of thought was echoed by Li himself in the last days of his life. “A healthy society should not have only one voice,” he said in an interview with the Chinese magazine Caixin.