|Died||7 February 2020 (aged 33)|
|Cause of death||COVID-19|
|Education||Master of Medicine (MMed)|
|Alma mater||Wuhan University|
|Known for||Discovering COVID-19|
Raising awareness about the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic
Li Wenliang (Chinese: 李文亮; pinyin: Lǐ Wénliàng; 12 October 1986 – 7 February 2020) was a Chinese ophthalmologist who worked as a physician at Wuhan Central Hospital. Li warned his colleagues in December 2019 about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), later acknowledged as COVID-19. He became a whistleblower when his warnings were later shared publicly. On 3 January 2020, Wuhan police summoned and admonished him for "making false comments on the Internet". Li returned to work, later contracted the virus from an infected patient (who had been originally treated for glaucoma) and died from the disease on 7 February 2020, at age 33. A subsequent Chinese official inquiry exonerated him and the Communist Party of China formally offered a "solemn apology" to his family and revoked its admonishment of him.
Li Wenliang was born on 12 October 1986 in a Manchu Family in Beizhen, Liaoning. He attended Beizhen High School (北镇市高级中学) and graduated with excellent academic performance. In 2004, he scored 609 in the National College Entrance Examination (gaokao), and was admitted to Wuhan University School of Medicine as a clinical medicine student in a seven-year combined bachelor's and master's degree program. He joined the Communist Party of China in his sophomore year. His tutor said he was a diligent and honest student. His college classmates said he was a basketball fan.
After graduation in 2011, Li worked at the Xiamen Eye Center of Xiamen University for three years. A former intern at Xiamen said that Li was so patient with his patients that he had never shown any dissatisfaction to them even when they failed to hear or understand what he said. His colleagues described him as an ordinary person, who was once scolded by his director.
on 30 December 2019
- Li: There are 7 confirmed cases of SARS at Huanan Seafood Market.
- Li: (Picture of diagnosis report)
- Li: (Video of CT scan results)
- Li: They are being isolated in the emergency department of our hospital's Houhu Hospital District.
- Someone: Be careful, or else our chat group might be dismissed.
- Li: The latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus is being subtyped.
- Li: Don't circulate the information outside of this group, tell your family and loved ones to take caution.
- Li: In 1937, coronaviruses were first isolated from chicken...
On 30 December 2019, Li saw a patient's report which showed a positive result with a high confidence level for SARS coronavirus tests. The report had originated from Ai Fen, director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central hospital, who became alarmed after receiving laboratory results of a patient whom she had examined who exhibited symptoms akin to influenza resistant to conventional treatment methods. The report contained the phrase “Sars coronavirus". Ai had circled the word "Sars", and sent it to a doctor at another hospital in Wuhan. From there it spread throughout medical circles in Wuhan, where it reached Li. At 17:43, he wrote in a private WeChat group of his medical school classmates: "7 confirmed cases of SARS were reported [to hospital] from Huanan Seafood Market." He also posted the patient's examination report and CT scan image. At 18:42, he added "the latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus strain is being subtyped". Li asked the WeChat group members to inform their families and friends to take protective measures. He was upset when the discussion gained a wider audience than he expected.
After screenshots of his WeChat messages were shared on Chinese forums and gained huge attention, the supervision department summoned him to talk, where he was blamed for leaking the information. On 3 January 2020, police from the Wuhan Public Security Bureau investigated the case and interrogated Li, giving him a warning notice and censuring him for "making false comments on the Internet". He was made to sign a letter of admonition promising not to do it again. The police warned him that if he failed to learn from the admonition and continued to violate the law he would be prosecuted.
After the admonition, Li returned to work in the hospital and contracted the virus on 8 January. On 31 January, he published his experience in the police station with the letter of admonition on social media. His post went viral and users questioned why the doctors who gave earlier warnings were silenced by the authorities.
Li was in the spotlight in the Chinese media because he was thought to be one of the eight "rumormongers" warned by Wuhan police. However, according to some media, Wuhan police summoned eight "rumormongers" on 1 January, while Li and Xie Linka, another doctor from Wuhan Union Hospital, were warned on 3 January, meaning that the latter two might not be part of the group. Li later responded that he did not know whether he was one of the "rumormongers", but that he had been admonished for telling the truth. The police punishment of Li for "rumor mongering" was aired on CCTV, signalling central government endorsement for the reprimand, according to two authors reporting for the South China Morning Post.
On 4 February, the Chinese Supreme People's Court said that the eight Wuhan citizens should not have been punished as what they said was not entirely false. It wrote on social media: "It might have been a fortunate thing if the public had believed the 'rumors' then and started to wear masks and carry out sanitization measures, and avoid the wild animal market."
Li told Caixin that he had been worried the hospital would punish him for "spreading rumors", but felt relieved after the top court publicly criticized the police. "I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don't approve of using public power for excessive interference," said Li.
Illness and death
On 8 January, Li contracted the coronavirus when he came into contact with an infected patient at his hospital. The patient suffered from acute angle-closure glaucoma and developed a fever the next day. Li then began to suspect that the patient might have a coronavirus infection. Li developed a fever and cough on 10 January, which soon became severe. Doctor Yu Chengbo, a Zhejiang medical expert sent to Wuhan, told media that although most young patients do not tend to develop severe conditions, the glaucoma patient whom Li saw on 8 January was a storekeeper at Huanan Seafood Market with a high viral load, which could have exacerbated Li's infection.
On 12 January, Li was admitted to intensive care at Houhu Hospital District, Wuhan Central Hospital, where he was quarantined, treated, and tested for the virus several times until he tested positive for the infection on 30 January. He was diagnosed with the virus infection on 1 February.
While hospitalized, Li posted a message online vowing to return to the front lines after his recovery.
According to a colleague, Li's condition became critical on 5 February. On 6 February, while Li was on the phone with a friend, he told the friend that he was having trouble breathing and that his oxygen saturation had dropped to 85%. At around 19:00, he was sent to the emergency room. According to China Newsweek, his heartbeat stopped at 21:30. In social media posts, the Chinese state media reported that Li had died, but the posts were soon deleted. Later, Wuhan Central Hospital released a statement contradicting reports of his death: "In the process of fighting the coronavirus, the eye doctor from our hospital Li Wenliang was unfortunately infected. He is now in critical condition and we are doing our best to rescue him." Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) was reportedly used to keep him alive. Yet, the effort was unsuccessful, and the hospital announced that Li had died at 2:58 a.m. on 7 February 2020. During the confusion, more than 17 million people were watching the live stream for his status updates.
Reaction to Li's death
The death of Li provoked considerable grief and anger on social media which became extended to a demand for freedom of speech. The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech gained over 2 million views and over 5,500 posts within 5 hours before it was removed by the censors, as were other related hashtags and posts.
|People mourning for Li Wenliang|
Wuhan citizens placed flowers and blew whistles at Wuhan Central Hospital, where Li worked and died, as a tribute to him. On the Internet, people spontaneously launched the activity themed "I blew a whistle for Wuhan tonight," where everyone kept all the lights off in their homes for five minutes, and later blew whistles and waved glitter outside of their windows for five minutes to mourn Li. Many people left messages in response to Li's last post on Sina Weibo, some lamenting his death and expressing anger at the authorities. He was also proclaimed an "ordinary hero".
Although initially there was no official apology from the city of Wuhan for reprimanding Li, within hours of his death, the Wuhan municipal government and the Health Commission of Hubei made exceptional statements of tribute to Li and condolences to his family. Beyond Wuhan, the National Health Commission did likewise. In an even more exceptional move, China's highest anti-corruption body, the National Supervisory Commission, has initiated a "comprehensive investigation" into the issues involving Li. Qin Qianhong, a law professor at Wuhan University expressed his concern that, unless properly managed, public anger over Li's death could explode in a similar way as the death of Hu Yaobang.
A group of Chinese academics, led by Tang Yiming – head of the school of Chinese classics at Central China Normal University in Wuhan – published an open letter urging the government to both protect free speech and apologize for Li's death. The letter emphasized the right to free speech, ostensibly guaranteed by the Chinese constitution. Tang said that the viral outbreak was a man-made disaster, and that China ought to learn from Li Wenliang. Tang also wrote he felt that senior intellectuals and academics must speak up for the Chinese people and for their own consciences. “We all should reflect on ourselves", he wrote, "and the officials should rue their mistakes even more." The letter alleges that Li Wenliang "is also a victim of speech suppression." Jie Qiao, Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and President of Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing called Li a "whistle-blower dedicating his young life in the front line".
U.S. Senate honors the life and contributions of Li by passing a resolution calling for transparency and cooperation from the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Communist Party of China.
When Li began showing symptoms of the coronavirus illness, he booked a hotel room to avoid the possibility of infecting his family, before being hospitalized on 12 January. Despite this precaution, his parents became infected with SARS-CoV-2, but later recovered.
- Carlo Urbani, a physician who was the first to warn about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and died of the disease in 2003
- Jiang Yanyong, a physician who was the first to reveal the actual situation of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Mainland China
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