Dr Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who spoke out against the Chinese government’s attempts to suppress news of the coronavirus, has died of the disease he warned the world about.
Li challenged attempts to keep the new virus quiet not once but twice, and if there is anything good to come out of the tragedy of his death, it may be that it will serve as a third blow to censorship efforts.
In late December, Li noticed some of his patients were suffering symptoms similar to those produced by the SARS virus. Although an ophthalmologist by specialty, rather than an expert in infectious disease, Li sent a message to other doctors at his hospital in Wuhan, alerting them to the danger and encouraging them to use protective equipment.
Authoritarian states specialize in suppressing information, and security police raided Li’s house in the middle of the night. After promising not to discuss the outbreak further, Li was allowed to return to work, which turned out not to be the good thing it appeared. On January 10, he operated on the eyes of a patient he did not know had 2019-nCOV, becoming infected himself.
Most of the people who have died in the current coronavirus outbreak have been elderly, with those who are young and healthy often suffering only mild symptoms. Tragically, Li was not among them and was hospitalized with severe fever and obstructed breathing. Reports he had died emerged on Thursday, but were initially denied. However, they have now been confirmed.
While being treated, Li went public with the attempted cover-up, sharing documents online from his hospital bed and giving interviews via text message. To a public becoming aware of their government's widespread dishonesty, Li became a hero.
Local officials apologized to him and seven other doctors they had accused of “spreading rumors”, but the fact the attempt to silence Li and others occurred at all has fed belief in reports the actual number of infections far exceeds the official figure of 30,000.
Public reaction in China to Li’s death has been so great that even the government media outlet The People’s Daily has described it as “national grief”. Chinese social media references to Li’s death have been censored, although The ABC quotes a Weibo user as saying: “May there be no lies in heaven, RIP.” Chinese citizens living abroad continue to make similar comments on Twitter and other platforms restricted at home.
How many lives could have been saved if Li’s warning of the outbreak had been heeded will never be known. Nevertheless, the outcome is a reminder that government attempts to silence scientific communication – something that sadly also occurs in more democratic nations – seldom ends well for anyone.