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Dr Li Wenliang: Death of a whistleblower

Map of the World with marked Wuhan as source of viral infection coronavirus 2019 2020 NCoV.The novel coronavirus has captured global attention since the start of the year, with thousands of infections across multiple countries and hundreds of deaths being reported. Among the deceased is 33-year-old Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist and whistleblower who sounded the alarm about the potential pandemic in its early days and was censured for doing so. 

Li studied at Wuhan University — in the city thrown into the global spotlight as being the epicentre of the epidemic — on a seven-year programme in clinical medicine. Following graduation, Li worked for three years in Xiamen, Fujian province before returning to Wuhan to practice as an ophthalmologist in Wuhan Central Hospital. 

After he saw a patient’s report, Li – in a message sent to a class of around 150 students  – spoke up about the novel coronavirus outbreak as the crisis was in its infancy and at a time when the disease had yet to be formally recognised by the authorities. His actions invited retaliation – the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission circulated a notice that “unauthorised individuals” should not circulate information unauthorised the same day that Li sounded the alarm to his peers.

Li’s messages about the then-nascent coronavirus outbreak were leaked online, earning him whistleblower status. This did not go down well with authorities, who censored Li. Their charge was that he was “ making false comments” and “spreading rumours.” Li, detained on January 3rd, was forced to sign a letter ‘confessing’ to “seriously [disrupting] social order.” Despite the treatment Li received at the hands of the authorities, he returned to the front line of the novel coronavirus outbreak where he contracted the disease and, on Friday, passed away at the age of 34. He is survived by his wife, with whom he is reported to have been expecting a second child.  

In the wake of his passing, there was an outpouring of grief on social media – as well as anger towards the authorities. Li’s father, Li Shuying, said “my son was wonderful” and denounced the allegations against him. “I don’t think he was rumour-mongering,” Li Shuying said. “Hasn’t this turned into reality now?” The World Health Organization (WHO) paid tribute to Li. Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said “we are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to celebrate the work he did on 2019 n-CoV.” 

The Supreme Court of China has spoken up on the issues surrounding Dr Li Wenliang and the response by authorities to his actions as a whistleblower. Police in Wuhan were rebuked by the body for their actions taken against eight whistleblowers – deemed “rumourmongers” by authorities – in the city. It is unclear that Li was among the eight whistleblowers mentioned by the Supreme Court, although China’s anti-corruption commission will be looking into the issues surrounding his treatment – promising “a comprehensive investigation into the problems reported by the public concerning Dr Li Wenliang.” 

“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumors’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the Court said, in what was perceived to be a vindication of the actions of whistleblowers like Dr Li and those who attracted authorities’ ire in the wake of an outbreak that has metastasised to be a global burden and designated by the WHO as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. 

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