China's coronavirus whistle-blower dies: There should be more than one voice in a healthy society, says doctor from hospital bed

Dr Li Wenliang had been worried the hospital would punish him for "spreading rumours" but felt relieved after the top court publicly criticised the police. PHOTO: NYTIMES, EPA-EFE

WUHAN/BEIJING (CAIXIN GLOBAL) - The Chinese doctor who was punished by police for trying to warn the world of the emergence of the new strain of coronavirus died on Friday (Feb 7) from the disease. He was 34.

Dr Li Wenliang, one of the whistle-blowers on China's coronavirus, officially known as 2019-nCoV, died at 2.58am on Friday in the Central Hospital of Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicentre of the epidemic, the hospital said early on Friday.

The end came following extraordinary efforts to keep the critically ill doctor alive in the hospital's intensive care unit (ICU).

Caixin learnt that treatments included a procedure known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (Ecmo), which circulates blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream, starting at around 9pm on Thursday.

News of Dr Li's death broke at around 10pm on Thursday. But the Central Hospital later said on its official Weibo account that a medical rescue effort was still under way.

Around midnight, a nurse at the hospital told Caixin outside the ICU that Dr Li "won't make it".

Dr Li disclosed on his social media account last Saturday that he had been diagnosed with a 2019-nCoV infection, most likely as a result of treating patients, but said he planned to return to work after recovery. By Wednesday, his condition had worsened, he told Caixin over WeChat.

"I haven't felt as good the last couple of days," he said. "It's getting harder to breathe."

An ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Dr Li received national attention after China's top court on Jan 28 criticised Wuhan police for reprimanding eight Wuhan citizens for "spreading rumours" about an illness in late December, in a commentary on its official WeChat account.

Dr Li is considered to be one of the eight, although the police did not identify who specifically they had accused or punished.


On Dec 30, Dr Li sent a message to his medical school alumni WeChat group, warning that the ophthalmology department in his hospital had put seven patients from a local seafood market into isolation wards after they were diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars).

A screenshot of the message was leaked, and Dr Li was summoned by the hospital's inspection unit for a talk. Later, on Jan 3, he was called in and reprimanded by local police for allegedly spreading rumours online and disrupting social order.

The commentary posted on the social media account of China's Supreme People's Court said that in retrospect, the eight Wuhan citizens should not have been punished, as what they said was not entirely false.

"It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the 'rumours' then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market," the commentary said.

Dr Li told Caixin in an interview on Jan 30 that he had been worried the hospital would punish him for "spreading rumours" but felt relieved after the top court publicly criticised the police.

"I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference," Dr Li said.

A few days after the police summons, Dr Li treated a patient who initially came in for glaucoma but later had a fever. A lung scan showed viral pneumonia.

On Jan 12, as he felt unwell and was suspected of having contracted the virus, he was moved to an isolation ward, Dr Li told Caixin. His parents were also infected and sent to the hospital.

On Jan 30, Dr Li said his test result had come back negative, but he remained in the isolation ward.

He said he did not plan to go through official judicial channels to get an explanation, saying that it would be troublesome for him and the public security bureau.

"It's more important that people know the truth," Dr Li said. "Justice is less important to me."

He did take the opportunity, however, to clarify that rumours saying his medical licence was suspended were not true.

As of Friday morning, China confirmed more than 31,000 coronavirus cases, and the epidemic's death toll had risen past 600.

This story was originally published by Caixin Global.

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