Dr Li Wenliang died after alerting the public about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. Photo: Weibo

An official apology issued by the Wuhan police on March 19 for its treatment of Dr Li Wenliang, who alerted the public about the coronavirus via social media, has failed to appease China’s outraged public. Li was killed by the disease after being warned by the authorities to stop sharing information about the outbreak. 

An official investigation report about Li’s case was released last week, a month after his death. It said two local policemen would face minor disciplinary measures for their mishandling of the case, including accusing Li of spreading rumors.

The muzzling of doctors and the peculiarly high number of infections among medical staff at Wuhan Central Hospital where Li worked were not mentioned in the report. More than 230 of Li’s colleagues were infected by Covid-19, five of whom died.

The late ophthalmologist is now regarded as a hero in China for giving early warnings online about the emergence of a SARS-like novel coronavirus in Wuhan Central Hospital in late December. 

Along with seven other people who issued similar alerts, Li was summoned by local police and reprimanded for “spreading rumors.” 

Undaunted by the outbreak, Li continued treating his patients until he was diagnosed with Covid-19 himself. On Febuary 7, he died in the same hospital that employed him. The tragedy sparked a public backlash against the apparatchik system that muzzled whistleblowers and eventually caused many deaths. 

To mollify the public, the National Supervisory Commission launched an investigation into Li’s death, releasing a final report on March 19. But many observers complained that Li had not been properly exonerated. 

The report simply drew a rough timeline of Li’s early response and health condition and concluded with a sentence criticizing the Wuhan police for their “improper law enforcement procedure.” 

On the Internet, members of the public challenged the report, saying that it omitted important information. Many demanded that officials be held accountable for the institutional negligence that resulted in Li’s infection and subsequent death. 

One said via the platform Weibo that the report should have provided details about every decision made by the Wuhan Central Hospital, Wuhan Health Commission and the local government, and that the name of each official and the timeline of their decisions should have been revealed. The post was shared, commented on and liked thousands of times within a very short period of time.

Another Weibo user mocked the investigation team, saying it had drafted its “press release” before the probe had even started.

Wuhan Central Hospital is notorious for having had extremely high staff infection and fatality rates during the outbreak. Before the tragic events unfolded, many of Li’s colleagues had pointed out the flaws in the facility’s disease control system and complained that the hospital’s management had tried to silence staff and ignored their risk alerts. 

On March 10, People Magazine published a widely circulated interview with Ai Fen, a colleague of Li and the director of Emergency Office at Wuhan Central Hospital, revealing some shocking details about the case. She said she was one of the medical staff members who had alerted their colleagues about the coronavirus test results. The hospital’s cadre supervisory department soon harshly reproached her for “damaging the prospect of Wuhan.” 

Even worse, doctors were not allowed to wear masks and protective clothing during the early stages of the outbreak in order to help downplay the severity of the situation and maintain Wuhan’s good reputation. It is alleged that such decisions directly resulted in Li’s infection.

Other shocking revelations reported by the tabloid Global Times included the healthcare authorities telling Wuhan Central hospital to suspend all tests for the contagion in early January so as to lower the number of new reported cases. When patients depleted all the protection gear in stock, the hospital management even turned down public donations, hoping to cover up the fact that there was a severe shortage of medical gear at the hospital, the paper said. 

“It’s very painful and deadly…but many lessons have been learned. Sometimes I think the anti-virus battle is like a magic mirror, which can reveal all those bureaucratic monsters,” Doctor Liu Jie, a coworker of Li, told the Global Times.

Read: Virus whistleblower MD punished ‘inappropriately’

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Joy Dong

A Hong Kong-based award-winning journalist specialized in China matters. Graduated from the University of Hong Kong, she writes about politics, human right and social issues. She is dedicated to tell China stories and provide indepth analysis for global readers.