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News of whistleblower doctor’s death withdrawn as Chinese social media blows up

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan central hospital, is suffering complications resulting from the coronavirus infection on Thursday evening.(Photo:Sina Weibo)

Conflicting reports in China’s state-controlled media about the condition of the 34-year-old doctor who was detained by the police for sounding the alarm about a mysterious new SARS-like pneumonia spreading in a Wuhan hospital last December spread confusion late on Thursday night.

While initially, the state-controlled tabloid, Global Times announced the death of Li Wenliang from Coronavirus in a Wuhan hospital, the tabloid changed the doctor’s status to “critically ill” two hours later.

It added that doctors were trying to revive Li even though his heart had stopped beating at 21-30 hours.

By then, several international media had reported on it; the WHO had announced its condolences and China’s online platforms exploded with grief and anger.

Questions were being raised on Twitter whether the Chinese government had stalled the official announcement of the doctor’s death to calm the citizens’ anger that was boiling over online.

Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan central hospital, is suffering complications resulting from the coronavirus infection on Thursday evening.

The doctor’s wife is pregnant with their second child and his parents have also contracted the disease but are said to be doing better.

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On December 30, Li chanced upon a test result of a patient who had been admitted to his hospital with a new, unidentified disease.

He shared the information on a private WeChat group with seven other friends, saying that from the results it looked like SARS, an epidemic of which killed hundreds in China in 2002-03 but was initially covered up by the government.

Li was a teenager then but clearly remembered the impact of the epidemic.

Li later said he only wanted to warn friends about the disease but his post went viral.

The doctor and his friends were soon summoned by the Wuhan police for spreading rumours, harassed, detained and then forced to sign a confession.

After his release, he went back to the hospital to work and in the second week of January contracted the disease.

Li caught the disease while treating a patient with an eye problem but who was also down with the Coronavirus but didn’t know about it.

He was hospitalised on January 12 and in the following days, as his condition deteriorated, Li was admitted to the intensive care unit.

On February 1, he tested positive for coronavirus.

Last week, the Supreme People’s Court criticised Li’s detention, saying it might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the ‘rumour’ then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitisation measures, and avoid the wild animal market (in Wuhan).

The initial reports of Li’s death triggered an outpouring of grief on China’s Twitter-like Weibo Thursday evening with netizens hailing him as a hero who sacrificed his life to treat the sick.

Within hours, the news of his reported death was number 1 on Weibo’s list of “hot topics” with more than 50 million having read it; at least 119000 threads of discussions were focussed on his life and death.

Many posted angry messages on Weibo.

“The damned are not dead. The least damned are dead,” wrote one user in Chinese.

“He didn’t even receive an apology before death,” wrote another.