Meet the Chinese doctor who tried to warn about coronavirus outbreak, but was gagged
Dr Li was working at the centre of the outbreak in December when he noticed seven cases of a virus that he thought looked like SARS.
In late December, Li Wenliang -- an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital in China -- posted a message in his medical school alumni group on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, warning that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness and quarantined in his hospital.
The warning landed Li in trouble as that time authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan were trying to keep news of a new coronavirus under wraps. Soon, the police paid him a visit and told him to stop.
Now, Li is being hailed as a hero after telling his story from a hospital bed. He details the botched response by local authorities in Wuhan in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.
Wuhan – the capital of China’s Hubei province – is the epicenter of the deadly outbreak which has claimed over 400 lives and infected more than 20,000 people globally, including Li.
In the WeChat message on December 30, Li said that, according to a test he had seen, the illness was a coronavirus -- a large family of viruses that includes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The pandemic in 2003 killed hundreds following a government cover up.
Li told his friends to warn their loved ones privately and to wear protective clothing to avoid infection. But within hours screenshots of his messages had gone viral -- without his name being blurred.
Four days later he had a visit from officials from the Public Security Bureau who told him to sign a letter. In the letter he was accused of "making false comments" that had "severely disturbed the social order", according to CNN.
He was one of eight people who police said were being investigated for "spreading rumours".
At the end of January, local authorities apologised to Li, but that apology came too late.
For the first few weeks of January officials in Wuhan were insisting that only those who came in contact with infected animals could catch the virus. No guidance was issued to protect doctors.
On January 10, after unwittingly treating a patient with the coronavirus, Li started coughing and developed a fever the next day. He was hospitalized on January 12. In the following days, Li's condition deteriorated so badly that he was admitted to the intensive care unit, and given oxygen support.
On February 1, he tested positive for coronavirus.
Li posted about his condition on Weibo, with an emoji of a dog with its eyes rolled back, tongue hanging out. His post received thousands of comments and words of support.
Dr Li Wenliang is a hero," one user said, worrying about what his story says about their country. "In the future, doctors will be more afraid to issue early warnings when they find signs of infectious diseases."
"A safer public health environment…requires tens of millions of Li Wenliang."
His diagnosis has sparked outrage across China, where a backlash is growing against state censorship around the illness and an initial delay in warning the public about the deadly virus.
From the start, the Chinese authorities wanted to control information about the outbreak, silencing any voices that differed with their narrative -- regardless of whether they were telling the truth.
On Li's Weibo, tens of thousands have left comments thanking him for speaking out and wishing him a speedy discovery.
"Dr Li, you're a good doctor with conscience. I hope you stay safe and sound," read one of the top-rated comments.
Others have questioned what could have been if Li's warning had been heeded.
"If Wuhan had paid attention to (his warning) back then and taken active preventive measures," wrote another Weibo user, "where we stand now a month later could be a completely different picture."
Twitter users also praised Li for his courage. Take a look:
I interviewed Doctor Li Wenliang who was lying in his sickbed via text messages. I hope his braveness can touch more people around the world. As a chinese saying goes, we can’t let those carrying the firewood for the group freeze in the snowstorm. 为众人抱薪者，不可使其冻毙于风雪 https://t.co/Q9SXawjbol— Elsie Chen (@elsiechenyi) February 2, 2020
"A safer public health environment…requires tens of millions of Li Wenliang."https://t.co/ClUeTpIEAN— ben LKS ???????? (@benLKS2) February 4, 2020
Dr. Li Wenliang, ophthalmologist in Wuhan Central Hospital who discovered the coronavirus and warned fellow doctors about it in early January, was forced to sign a letter by officials from the Public Security Bureau saying he had made false statements and would face (in)justice pic.twitter.com/9vuoY8s3ev— ThaiMythbuster (@thaimythbuster) February 4, 2020
I hope the doctors in #China are able to stop the #cornonavirus and my thoughts and prayers are with the #Chinese people. Dr Li Wenliang is a hero as are all the doctors and nurses working tirelessly. All the best from the UK and stay healthy #ChineseNewYear #WuhanHospital— RedBlackPaws (@RedBlackPaws) February 4, 2020