The Chinese doctor who was punished by police for trying to warn the world of the emergence of the new strain of coronavirus died Friday from the disease. He was 34.
Li Wenliang, one of the whistleblowers on China’s novel coronavirus now known as 2019-nCoV, died at 2:58 a.m. Friday in the Central Hospital of Wuhan, Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, the hospital said early Friday.
The end came following extraordinary efforts to keep the critically ill doctor alive in the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). Caixin learned that treatments included a procedure known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which circulates blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream, starting around 9 p.m. Thursday.
News of Li’s death broke around 10 p.m. Thursday. But the Central Hospital later said on its official Weibo account that a medical rescue effort was still underway. Around midnight, a nurse at the hospital told Caixin outside the ICU that Li “won’t make it.”
Li disclosed Feb. 1 on his social media account that he had been diagnosed with a 2019-nCoV infection, most likely as a result of treating patients, but said he planned to return to work after recovery. By Feb. 5, his condition had worsened, he told Caixin over WeChat.
“I haven’t felt as good the last couple of days,” he said. “It’s getting harder to breathe.”
An ophthalmologist in Wuhan, Li received national attention after China’s top court Jan. 28 criticized (link in Chinese) Wuhan police for reprimanding eight Wuhan citizens for “spreading rumors” about an illness in late December, in a commentary on its official WeChat account. Li is considered to be one of the eight, although the police did not identify who specifically they had accused or punished.
"There should be more than one voice in a healthy society"
On Dec. 30, Li sent a message to his medical school alumni WeChat group, warning that the ophthalmology department in his hospital had put seven patients from a local seafood market into isolation wards after they were diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
A screenshot of the message was leaked, and Li was summoned by the hospital’s inspection unit for a talk. Later, on Jan. 3, he was called in and reprimanded by local police for allegedly spreading rumors online and disrupting social order.
The commentary posted on the social media account of China’s Supreme People’s Court said that in retrospect, the eight Wuhan citizens should not have been punished as what they said was not entirely false.
“It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumors’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures, and avoid the wild animal market,” the commentary said.
Li told Caixin in an interview Jan. 30 that he had been worried the hospital would punish him for “spreading rumors” but felt relieved after the top court publicly criticized the police.
“I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference,” Li said.
A few days after the police summons, Li treated a patient who initially came in for glaucoma but later had a fever. A lung scan showed viral pneumonia. On Jan. 12, as Li felt unwell and was suspected of having contracted the virus, he was moved to an isolation ward, Li told Caixin. His parents were also infected and sent to the hospital. On Jan. 30, Li said his test result had come back negative, but he remained in the isolation ward.
He said he did not plan to go through official judicial channels to get an explanation, saying that it would be troublesome for him and the public security bureau.
“It’s more important that people know the truth,” Li said. “Justice is less important to me.” Li did take the opportunity, however, to clarify that rumors saying his medical license was suspended were not true.
As of Thursday evening, China confirmed more than 28,000 coronavirus cases, and the epidemic’s death toll had risen past 500.
Contact reporter Timmy Shen (firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @timmyhmshen), editor Gavin Cross (email@example.com) and Bob Simison (firstname.lastname@example.org)