Dr Li Wenliang’s death must not go in vain

February 13, 2020 18:09
A makeshift memorial for Dr Li Wenliang is seen at an entrance to the Central Hospital of Wuhan in China on Feb. 7 after the whistleblower doctor himself died of a novel coronavirus. Photo: Reuters

Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital who was among the very first in the mainland to sound the alarm about the Wuhan novel coronavirus outbreak, died of pneumonia on Feb. 7 at the age of 34.

Li was among the eight doctors who were labeled "rumor-mongers" and reprimanded by Wuhan authorities for discussing the epidemic outbreak on a WeChat group and warning classmates and friends about a SARS-like disease found at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

As it turns out, Li's warning was very real and imminent, and what he was spreading wasn’t rumor at all, but rather, some true information about a public hygiene disaster that would sweep across the entire country in a matter of weeks.

News of Li’s death has set the internet alight, and sparked widespread mourning, grief and outrage among mainland netizens, many of whom have demanded accountability from the government and urged the authorities to apologize for labeling the eight doctors as rumor-mongers.

At the same time, there are also mounting calls among netizens for demands including freedom of expression and transparency of information, with some even proposing that Feb. 6, the date when talk of Li’s death first surfaced, be designated as the “national day of free speech”.

As always, the internet and social media posts were quickly removed by the authorities.

Fighting for free speech may be a highly sensitive issue in the mainland. Yet from the perspective of public health, transparency of information will definitely help in the efforts to contain the spread of infectious diseases.

In fact the reason why Li is hailed as a “whistleblower” is because his timely warning, had it been taken seriously by the authorities, would have saved countless lives.

And his motives to blow the whistle were indeed very simple and apolitical: all he wanted to do was urge those he knew to stay vigilant against the looming epidemic.

In our opinion, while there is no need to read overly into Li’s death, it shouldn’t be deliberately downplayed either.

Rather, we hope the mainland government can truly learn the lesson of Li’s tragic death and become firmly aware of a universal principle: when it comes to handling public health issues, it is always better to ensure as much information transparency as possible.

And the biggest "no" is delaying notifications or covering up the truth about any disease outbreak.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal