Confusion as state media said a doctor who tried to warn about the virus in December had died, only to reverse reports hours later
The Chinese doctor who was among the first to raise the alarm about the new coronavirus was confirmed dead last night, but only after state media reported he passed away from the virus before a U-turn hours later amid an outpouring of grief and anger.
The Communist Party-controlled Global Times said on Thursday evening that Dr Li Wenliang, a – year-old ophthalmologist, had died at 9: pm local time after contracting the virus.
But hours later the newspaper deleted the story from its Twitter account and claimed that the doctor, who has a five-year-old child and another on the way, was fighting for his life. The People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper, confirmed on Friday morning that the doctor has died.
The about-turn had followed an outpouring of anger and upset online, aptly described in a tweet from the state-run People’s Daily website as a display of “national grief”.
As confusion about Dr Li’s fate abounded, some commentators suggested that it was an attempt by the Chinese state to rein in public outrage over its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Chinese authorities had targeted Dr Li in late December after he urged fellow medics to wear protective clothing to work in a post on social media in which he warned about a cluster of flu-like cases at Wuhan Central Hospital. He shared information about seven patients who were in quarantine.
Dr Li said their symptoms reminded him of Sars – another coronavirus that originated in China in and spread across the globe, killing 823 People, after Chinese authorities tried to cover up the initial outbreak.
But four days after Dr Li’s initial warning on social media the local Public Security Bureau accused the doctor of “making false comments” that had “disturbed the social order”.
He was one of eight people the police reprimanded for “spreading rumors” in the early days of the outbreak – when China was tightly controlling the narrative – and was forced to sign a letter stating that he would not publicly discuss his concerns again.
Speaking to The Telegraph at the time , Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said she had felt the authorities’ response was heavy-handed and raised questions about whether the public could trust government information.
“I have real concerns about people who are supposedly‘ spreading rumors ’being harassed by authorities….” They have been treated as anarchists, ”she said.
And Dr Li later told the New York Times: “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency. ”
The doctor had broken his state-imposed silence in mid-January to share his story on Weibo, the Chinese social media site, after he had been hospitalized.
He described how he developed a cough and fever on January 30 – the same week Chinese researchers announced they had discovered a novel coronavirus, but when authorities still maintained there had been no new infections for seven days.
By January 30, Dr Li was in hospital and his parents had also fallen ill. It is thought that the whistleblower picked up the infection after treating an elderly glaucoma patient who had the new coronavirus. His infection was confirmed on January .
The World Health Organization once again praised doctors and nurses treating patients for their efforts to contain the virus.
“The real heroes of this response are the frontline doctors and nurses who go to work every day,” Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program said at a press conference in Geneva.
Dr Ryan had expressed his condolences at Dr Li’s death during the media briefing, but after contradictory media reports emerged online, the WHO tweeted that it had “no information on the status of Dr Li”.
The UN agency has praised China’s transparency throughout the outbreak, stressing that without swift action from the country government the coronavirus would have spread much further .
If he succumbs, Mr Li would not be the first health worker to die in the outbreak – 62 – year-old doctor Liang Wudong died almost two weeks ago – but it will trigger concern because of his age.
So far the vast majority of deaths have been among patients over the age of 60 or with pre-existing medical conditions.
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