Chinese doctor who dares speak truth to power

March 09, 2020 12:39
Dr Zhong Nanshan's advice to foreign governments battling the coronavirus outbreak is to use the same tough measures as China did. Photo: Reuters

When China finally emerges from the coronavirus nightmare, there is one person it should thank above all others -- Dr Zhong Nanshan (锺南山醫生), 84, the country’s leading respiratory specialist and the man who had led the fight against the disease.

It was he who identified the virus last December 31 and sent a report to the United Nations on January 7. On the night of January 18, he took a high-speed train from Guangzhou to Wuhan. He spent the next day there with doctors and patients before flying to Beijing and reporting to the national leaders.

It was he who revealed that the virus could be spread by one human to another. At a news conference in Guangzhou on January 21, he announced the draconian measures used since then in China and around the world to control the disease – quarantine, minimum contact with others and no travel to Wuhan – and said there was no vaccine to cure it.

"I am confident that, by the end of April, we will basically control the situation,” he told a second news conference on April 27. He and other Chinese medical specialists say the number of new cases is falling and will reach close to zero by the end of April, because of the stringent measures which China has adopted nationwide.

His advice to foreign governments is to use the same tough measures as China and be ready to bear the economic and social costs.

Dr Zhong was already a household name in China because he played a similar role during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003. In December 2002, a hospital in Guangzhou received the first SARS patient and the disease began to spread rapidly in the city, including among medical personnel.

Dr Zhong, who is based in Guangzhou, at once arranged a team to fight the disease, despite the severe risks they would face. At his first news conference on the epidemic in January 2003, he said they did not understand the nature of SARS and that the medical personnel were afraid. “Bring the worst patients to me,” he declared.

His words inspired a fearful nation. His team achieved the world’s lowest mortality of SARS infection, just 3.8 percent in Guangdong province, by use of corticosteroids and non-invasive ventilation.

It is this record of professional achievement which enables Dr Zhong to speak truth to power and has earned him a degree of immunity.

Others do so at their peril. At least 13 doctors and nurses have died and thousands of medical personnel have been infected by the coronavirus. Most famous is Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital; he died on the frontline on February 7, aged 34. On December 30, he warned of the risks of the virus. He and seven other doctors were summoned by the police and forced to write ‘self-criticisms’.

Since the government implemented Dr Zhong’s draconian measures, China has been able to control the disease. The rate of new cases is falling. China's official narrative has become triumphant and self-congratulatory.

"The world owes China a ‘thank you’,” said a Xinhua commentary last Tuesday. "Without China’s great sacrifice and contribution, we could not have won valuable time for the world to fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic. China's response has been perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment in history."

But the words of Dr Zhong at the news conference in Guangzhou on February 27 show that this commentary tells only part of the truth.

“If we could in early December or early January have taken strict control measures, the number of patients would have been very greatly reduced,” he said.

"We did a calculation. If we implemented the measures on January 25, the number of new cases would increase by more than 100,000. On January 7, we informed the local government and National Disease Control Center. This epidemic has revealed the low status of the Center. In the US and other countries, such center can in special circumstances disclose information to the public without telling the central authorities.”

In other words, while China has performed well since closing down Hubei on January 23, its delay in informing the public in the weeks before added tens of thousands of patients, at home and abroad.

Dr Zhong learnt honesty and dedication from his parents, both doctors. He was born in Beijing in 1936. His father earned a Ph.D in medicine from New York University and became one of the top pediatricians and virologists in post-1949 China.

As a boy, the young man saw parents bringing their children to the crowded family home to consult his father. After graduating from Beijing Medical College, he did research at the University of Edinburgh and the University of London. He is the Director of the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases and has published 16 books on medical subjects.

"When I was a child, my father instructed me always to speak the truth," he said. "That was the demand he made of himself. During the battle against SARS and the debate about its cause, I insisted on speaking the truth. Sometimes that was hard for leaders to hear, but it is something I must do.”

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.

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