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He Warned About Illness, Was Silenced. Now He's Sick, Too

Chinese doctor Li Wenliang got an early warning from police
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 4, 2020 10:50 AM CST

(Newser) – One doctor's plight in China is drawing much attention amid the coronavirus scare. The reason? Li Wenliang issued a warning about the outbreak in its early stages on social media, then got silenced by police. Now he's suffering from the illness himself. Coverage:

  • The warning: Li is a 34-year ophthalmologist who works at a hospital in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. On Dec. 30, he sent a message on WeChat to fellow medical professionals warning them that patients with a SARS-like illness were quarantined in his facility's emergency department. Mindful of the deadly 2002-2003 SARS pandemic, he urged his colleagues to be aware and take precautions while treating their own patients, reports the BBC.
  • The consequences: "I only wanted to remind my university classmates to be careful," he tells CNN. After screenshots of his warning went viral, however, Li was summoned for questioning by hospital officials and, days later, by the police, who accused him of "spreading rumors online."

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  • A threat: Police made the doctor sign a written statement, which Li is now showing to media outlets. "We solemnly warn you: If you keep being stubborn, with such impertinence, and continue this illegal activity, you will be brought to justice—is that understood?" Beneath that, Li wrote, "Yes, I do."
  • Mishandled: Li wasn't the only person so treated. Authorities in Wuhan silenced several doctors and others who spoke of the coronavirus when it first emerged, reports the New York Times. Instead of informing the public, they tried to keep the information under wraps and presented the facade that no public threat existed: "By not moving aggressively to warn the public and medical professionals, public health experts say, the Chinese government lost one of its best chances to keep the disease from becoming an epidemic."
  • Now a patient: Li was allowed to go back to work, and he subsequently contracted the coronavius himself from a woman he was treating for glaucoma. He's now hospitalized, and his story is becoming well-known around the country. "If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier, I think it would have been a lot better," he tells the Times. "There should be more openness and transparency."
  • Court agrees: A commentary posted online by China's highest court criticized the early police action to stifle information. "It might have been a fortunate thing for containing the new coronavirus, if the public had listened to this 'rumor' at the time, and adopted measures such as wearing masks, strict disinfection, and avoiding going to the wildlife market," the commentary said.
  • One view: "Dr Li Wenliang is a hero," wrote one social media user in a post spotted by the BBC. But the user was still worried about the precedent. "In the future, doctors will be more afraid to issue early warnings when they find signs of infectious diseases."
(China now has more than 20,000 cases.)

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