The death of a doctor dubbed a “hero who was willing to tell the truth” about coronavirus has sparked grief and anger in China even as the death toll in the country surpasses 1,200.
Li Wenliang, a medic at a hospital in Wuhan, tried to raise the alarm about the new strain of coronavirus in December, after he discovered a virus in patients that looked like Sars – an infection that killed almost 800 people during 2002/03.
But at the start of January, he was warned by police to stop “spreading rumours” about coronavirus, with officers telling him he had “severely disrupted social order” and he would face criminal charges if he continued.
On February 1, Li revealed he had contracted coronavirus. According to the hospital where he worked, the 34-year-old died in the early hours of Friday morning, local time.
His death has triggered a huge reaction in China, where more than 30,000 people have been infected with coronavirus and the death toll has exceeded 600.
News of Li’s death became the top-read topic on China’s microblogging site Weibo overnight on Friday, with over 1.5 billion views.
Some Chinese media outlets described him as a “hero who was willing to speak the truth” while other commentators posted poems, photos and drawings saluting him.
“Light a candle and pay tribute to the hero,” said one Weibo commentator. “You were the beam of light in the night.”
An image also posted on Weibo showed a message, “farewell Li Wenliang”, carved into the snow on a riverbank in Beijing.
Li’s treatment by authorities triggered memories of how China in 2003 was accused of trying to cover up a major outbreak of Sars, a previously unknown virus believed to have emerged from the wet markets of Guangdong province before spreading into major cities and other countries.
There were also signs that discussions of Li’s death were being censored, Reuters reported, especially ones that blamed the government.
The topics “the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech” briefly trended on Weibo late on Thursday, but yielded no search results on Friday.
Reports of Li’s death had surfaced before midnight local time in China on state media but were deleted later.
China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, its top anti-corruption body, said on Friday it would send investigators to Wuhan to probe “issues raised by the people in connection with Dr Li Wenliang.”
Meanwhile, a statement on the Wuhan government read: “He died after unsuccessful efforts to save him.
“We express our deep condolences and regret. We pay tribute to how he stood at the front line to fight the epidemic and offer our sincere condolences to his family.”