Asia-Pacific

The Chinese doctor who tried to warn of the coronavirus outbreak has died

Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblowing doctor in Wuhan who first warned of the outbreak of the coronavirus. Source: New York Times

Dr Li Wenliang sounded an alarm about a strange new virus. Then the police summoned him in for a talking to.

A doctor who was among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak, only to be silenced by the police, died on Friday after himself becoming infected with the virus, the hospital treating him reported.

The Wuhan City Central Hospital said at 3.48am on Friday that the doctor, Li Wenliang, had died shortly before.

“We deeply regret and mourn this,” it said on the Chinese social media site Weibo.

Just hours earlier, the hospital said it was still fighting to save Dr Li.

The New York Times wrote about the doctor on 1 February, documenting his efforts to alert colleagues about an alarming cluster of illnesses that resembled Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS, an earlier coronavirus that ravaged China nearly two decades ago.

The article also reported Dr Li’s middle-of-the-night summons by unhappy health officials.

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr Li told The Times.

“I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

Dr Li’s fate is a singularly delicate issue for the Chinese government.

Even as officials battle the epidemic, they have tried to stifle widespread criticism that they mismanaged their response to the initial outbreak in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China’s Hubei Province.

Early reports of Dr Li’s death, before the hospital said he was still alive, set off an outpouring of messages on the Chinese internet that lionised him as a hero who stood up to officials trying to play down a medical threat that came to engulf Wuhan, spill across China and ignite an international health crisis.

After the hospital said doctors were still trying to save Dr Li, people began posting comments of support. The doctor has one child, and he and his wife are expecting a second in the summer.

“Not sleeping!!! Waiting online for a miracle,” said one comment under the hospital’s statement on Weibo.

“We don’t need to sleep tonight, but Li Wenliang must rise.”

In recent days, China has stepped up censorship after a rush of online criticism and investigative reports by emboldened Chinese journalists exposing the missteps that led the government to underestimate the threat of the coronavirus.

In early January, Dr Li was questioned by hospital officials and the police after he warned a circle of medical school classmates on 30 December about a viral outbreak that he said appeared similar to SARS.

The police compelled him to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an unfounded and illegal rumor.

Dr Li was soon vindicated as more and more Wuhan residents fell ill with fever and pneumonia symptoms.

They eventually grew to over 10,000 — and Dr Li was among their number. He had pneumonia.

An ophthalmologist, Dr Li had contracted the virus from one of his patients.

“I think a healthy society should not have just one voice,” he recently told Caixin, a Chinese magazine that has reported aggressively on the epidemic.

In recent interviews, Dr Li sounded hopeful about overcoming the illness and going back to work.

“After I recover, I still want to return to the front line,” he told The Southern Metropolis Daily, a Chinese newspaper.

“The epidemic is still spreading, and I don’t want to be a deserter.”

By Chris Buckley © 2020 The New York Times

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