More than 400 people have now died due to the coronavirus, including two outside China.
A whistleblower doctor was silenced by Chinese police when he flagged the outbreak early on. In a matter of days, Dr. Li Wenliang went from treating patients to becoming one. The 34-year-old ophthalmologist was diagnosed Saturday with the Wuhan Coronavirus.
But if action had been taken when he and others started sounding alarms, the severity of the outbreak might have been understood sooner.
It was back in late December when Li first warned friends on WeChat about a SARS-like disease going around.
Li sent a group message saying a test result from a patient quarantined at the hospital where he worked showed a patient had coronavirus. But hours after hitting “Send”, Wuhan City Health officials tracked Li down – questioning where he got the information.
Within days they closed the suspected source of the virus, a seafood market, and announced the outbreak. But instead of being praised, Li got a call from Wuhan City Police.
With Li coughing too much and breathing too poorly to speak by phone, he was asked by text: “How did you feel when this happened?”
Li responded, “I felt a little afraid. Afraid I would be detained. Afraid my family would worry.”
Li agreed to signing a document, admitting to “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order”. It reads: “We want you to cooperate with the police, and listen to our reminder and stop the illegal act. Can you do that?” Li answered, “Yes, I can.”
In the weeks that followed, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission maintained there was no obvious evidence for human-to-human transmission, no infection of healthcare workers, and that the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.” With this, the people of Wuhan continued about their normal lives.
Then came a sudden jump in infections. China’s central government took over, scrambling to contain a spreading virus with a rising death toll.
Chinese state media first reported Li was one of several whistleblowers silenced by police. Calls for Li and the others to be vindicated grew online. China’s Supreme Court even weighed in, criticizing the Wuhan Police.
For many, including Li and his parents, it was too late. They all contracted the coronavirus. Li is now fighting for his life alone in quarantine. But online, is considered a hero. Tens of thousands are praising his attempts to sound the alarm ahead of what has become a global health emergency.
Following the Supreme Court’s comments, the Wuhan Police issued a statement saying those accused of spreading rumors had only been summoned for a talk and not detained or fined.