It has been over a year that coronavirus cases first emerged in China’s Wuhan. What started as a mysterious fever in November 2019 in China had the world paused in an uneasy, uncertain lockdown by March 2020. When China faced flak for not alerting the world on time about the virus infection, it was Chinese doctor Li Wenliang whose name came forward as the whistleblower in the case.
He was one of the eight whistleblowers who warned other medics of the coronavirus outbreak but were reprimanded by the police.
He dropped a bombshell in his medical school alumni group on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness and quarantined in his hospital.
Li explained that, according to a test he had seen, the illness was a coronavirus — a large family of viruses that includes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) which led to 800 death in China and the world in 2003.
Li told his friends to warn their loved ones privately. But within hours screenshots of his messages had gone viral - without his name being blurred. He was one of several medics targeted by the police for trying to blow the whistle on the deadly virus in the early weeks of the outbreak.
A year after his death, Wuhan residents are thankful to Wenliang for sending out the alarm about the outbreak before it received official recognition. Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in the city, became one of the most visible figures in the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan when he tried to sound the alarm about its appearance, but was reprimanded by police for “spreading rumours.”
The doctor died on February 7 after contracting the virus infection while treating coronavirus patients in Wuhan. There was mourning and anger after his death as reports of his intimidation by police emerged as he tried to send out alert on the pandemic.
While the world and his colleagues remembered him and honoured him, Chinese President hasn’t made any mention of him. When President Xi Jinping honoured the “heroes” of the “people’s war” against the virus in September, there was no mention of Li’s contribution.
While people on the streets around Li’s hospital say life in the city has mostly returned to its usual rhythm, they still revere Li for his actions.
As Reuters journalists visited the area around the hospital on Saturday they were followed by two men in plainclothes who identified themselves as “hospital parking security,” and local guards blocked a cameraman from filming the hospital entrance.
“He was the first to tell us about the virus,” said Li Pan, 24, who owns an online store.
“He must have considered the impact would be huge, but he still raised the alarm. That was really brave,” Li said.
Ji Penghui, a 34 year-old designer, said he heard about Li’s warning in the early days and rushed to stock up on masks before the officials spoke openly about the virus.
“The public strongly acknowledges him, and personally, I think he should receive more official honours, rather than being treated as what he did is already in the past” Ji said.
Ji said the government made mistakes in the early stages, but it has handled it well since.
A World Health Organization team is currently in Wuhan researching the early stages of the outbreak, and is preparing to present its findings, team member Dominic Dwyer told Reuters on Friday.
The team visited the sprawling Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, thought to be where the virus first became an outbreak, which led to a pandemic that has infected over 105 million people and killed nearly 3 million worldwide.
The market site has been shut to the public since the beginning of last year.
The origins of the virus have become highly politicised, and some Chinese diplomats and state media have thrown support behind theories that the virus potentially originated in another country.
While 80-year-old Qian Wende said he does not know where the virus came from, he regards Li as a hero.
“We should be commemorating his contribution to fighting the pandemic,” he said.
(With inputs from Reuters)