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Coronavirus Kills Chinese Whistleblower Doctor, 34

We're seeing what happens when authoritarian control of information and message turns deadly.

Dr. Li Wenliang died today, 2/6/19. (CNN/Screengrab/Li Wenliang Twitter feed)

A Wuhan doctor who had been silenced by authorities for blowing the whistle on coronavirus has died. According to The New York Times which exchanged texts with 34-year-old Li Wenliang as recently as Feb. 1, he contracted the virus in early January when treated a woman for glaucoma (and not knowing she was infected). He died today after an outpouring of support from well-wishers and confusion about his actual prognosis.

The announcement of his death dropped like a bomb in an already roiling landscape of fear, conspiracy, and recriminations: specifically, growing anger at the Chinese government for what now looks like a cover-up of the timing and the scope of the coronavirus outbreak. Dr. Li, whose wife is expecting their second child, had texted the NYT with this very charge:

“If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr. Li told The Times on Feb. 1. “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”

The paper tonight said there were 70 new deaths reported today, and 3,100 new cases. This would bring the total number of cases of infected to 31,161 nationwide. There are confirmed cases in some 30 countries across the globe now, including 12 in the United States. The World Health Organization has declared coronavirus a global health emergency.

Dr. Li was dragged into the police on Dec. 30 after it was found that he was texting warnings to his medical colleagues about the outbreak. They forced him to sign a statement saying his warnings constituted illegal behavior.

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s government is notorious for its iron grip on domestic information, how it is delivered, what is said, and when. Personal speech and communications (including the Internet), the way people behave—even their loyalty to him—is highly regulated and monitored. The only way we know, for example, that a million Uighurs have been locked away in “education camps” and the extent of the abuse of the minority Muslims in and out of the camps in Xinjiang province is because of leaked government documents and very brave messengers who risk life and limb to get the word out.

So it is no surprise that controlling the news and the potential ramifications of a SARS-like outbreak (or worse) might take priority over launching an immediate response might have minimized the spread of the virus at the start. The Times reporting shows that is exactly what happened:

In the crucial seven weeks between the first recorded infections in December and when Wuhan province (the so-called epicenter) was locked down, according to the paper, “the authorities silenced doctors and others for raising red flags. They played down the dangers to the public, leaving the city’s 11 million residents unaware they should protect themselves. They closed a food market where the virus was believed to have started, but didn’t broadly curb the wildlife trade.

“Their reluctance to go public, in part, played to political motivations as local officials prepared for their annual congresses in January. Even as cases climbed, officials declared repeatedly that there had likely been no more infections.”

Now, reports indicate through journalists that are finding away to get information to the outside, that “hundreds of doctors” may be infected in Wuhan. The place is still locked down, so it is hard to know.

Of course with all of this secrecy and coverup (the government announced it was cracking down on all social media platforms in China, to “create a good cyberspace environment to win the battle against the [coronavirus] epidemic”) comes conspiracy. There have been posts all over social media and on website news outlets that some 300,000 people could be already infected worldwide—this in part stems from a Lancet modeling study that looked at the rate of infection in Wuhan. From Taiwan News:

The study estimates the number of cases is much more given the 2.68 spread rate per case, the doubling of total infections every 6.4 days, and known travel patterns in China and worldwide.

The study stated that by Jan. 25, there were probably already 75,815 people infected with the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Wuhan. This number for January far exceeds the number given by the government on Feb. 6 of 28,000.

Given the report estimated over 75,000 cases on Jan. 25, it has been 12 days, and the rate of doubling is every 6.4 days, the number of cases in Wuhan alone would now be around 300,000.

Dr Li’s death seems to have concentrated the many channels of distrust and restiveness of the population who had begun to see Li as a sort of folk hero. The sight of his youthful looks behind the respiratory mask has only fueled the outrage, especially knowing how he tussled with the very authorities who likely caused his death, along with so many others, due to staggering government negligence. This could get ugly, fast.

about the author

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, executive editor, has been writing for TAC since 2007, focusing on national security, foreign policy, civil liberties and domestic politics. She served for 15 years as a Washington bureau reporter for FoxNews.com, and at WTOP News in Washington from 2013-2017 as a writer, digital editor and social media strategist. She has also worked as a beat reporter at Bridge News financial wire (now part of Reuters) and Homeland Security Today, and as a regular contributor at Antiwar.com. A native Nutmegger, she got her start in Connecticut newspapers, but now resides with her family in Arlington, Va.

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