BEIJING (AFP, NYTIMES, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) – A Chinese doctor who was among the first to raise a public alarm about the deadly coronavirus outbreak died of the infection early on Friday (Feb 7), his hospital announced.
Ophthalmologist Li Wenliang died from the infection at 2.58am, Wuhan Central Hospital said in a post on its verified account on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
There had earlier been confusion surrounding his condition, after reports that he had died were followed up with reports denying that this was the case.
In the most recent update before his death was announced, the Wuhan hospital said in a Weibo post at around 12.45am on Friday that it was still trying to save Dr Li and that his condition was critical.
According to the New York Times, some Chinese news reports had said earlier, without clear sourcing, that Dr Li, 34, was already dead. The World Health Organisation issued a message of condolence on Twitter but also did not specify the source of its information.
The New York Times wrote about the doctor last Saturday, documenting his efforts to alert colleagues about an alarming cluster of illnesses that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, a 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.
The initial reports of Dr Li’s death 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.
Jiemian, a Chinese news website, was among those that had reported Dr Li’s death, citing the doctor’s classmates. After falling ill from the coronavirus infection, the report said, Dr Li took a turn for the better – but then relapsed.
The doctor had one child, and he and his wife were expecting a second in the summer.
Following the hospital's clarification that Dr Li was in fact still alive, people began posting comments of support.
“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.”
Following the confirmation, news of Dr Li’s death soared to the top read topics on Weibo on Friday, with over 1 billion views.
“Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero,” said one Weibo commentator. “You were the beam of light in the night.”
Some Chinese media outlets described him as a “hero who was willing to speak the truth” while other commentators posted poems, photos and drawings saluting him.
In recent days, China had 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.
Some of the reports have since been taken down.
In early January, Dr Li was questioned by hospital officials and police after he warned a circle of medical school classmates on Dec 30 about a viral outbreak that he said appeared similar to Sars.
He was among eight others who were reprimanded by Wuhan police for spreading “illegal and false” information about the coronavirus and was compelled to sign a statement denouncing his warning as an illegal rumour.
Dr Li was soon vindicated as more and more Wuhan residents fell ill with fever and pneumonia symptoms. They eventually grew to more than 10,000 – and Dr Li was among their number. He had pneumonia.
Dr Li said he 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.”