Death of 'hero' whistleblower Chinese doctor Li Wenliang sparks anger at government's response

  • Video report by ITV News Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

A Chinese doctor who first raised the alarm about the dangers of the new coronavirus has been described as a "hero", after authorities warned him about spreading false rumours about the disease.

Dr Li Wenliang, 34, died on Friday after contracting the illness in January.

News of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist's death has sparked rare condemnation of the ruling Communist Party among its citizens.

People have described him on social media as a "hero" with several posts calling for local authorities to apologise to Dr Li's family.

One wrote: “If his warning could send an alarm, the outbreak might not have continued to worsen.”

A post by one of Dr Li’s co-workers, an A&E nurse, said the freezing Wuhan weather was “as gloomy as my mood”.

“To you, we are angels and so strong. But how strong a heart can watch the people around me fall one by one without being shocked?” wrote Li Mengping on her verified account.

Others placed blame for the deaths on Chinese officials, not an animal species from where the virus might have spread, and said those who made trouble for the doctor should face consequences.

The most pointed online comments were quickly deleted by censors.

News of the 34-year-old ophthalmologist's death has sparked rare condemnation of the ruling Communist Party among its citizens. Credit: AP

The Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper and usually a staunch defender of the authorities, reported that “many said the experience of the eight ‘whistleblowers’ was evidence of local authorities' incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus."

“Looking back, his professional sense of vigilance in particular is worthy of our respect,” the paper said in an editorial.

Facemasks are now mandatory in parts of China amid virus concerns. Credit: AP

Li Wenliang’s mother told Pear Video, a Chinese well-known video outlet, her son leaves behind a pregnant wife and a five-year-old son.

She said her son's condition seemed to be improving three weeks ago, before it took a turn for the worst.

She said: “We didn’t see his last moment. We never see him after he got into hospital and even he is being rescued. It’s really a pity that they didn’t allow us to see (my son). Probably because of epidemic."

She added: "His wife is going to give a birth to their second child. How this family can continue. It falls apart.”

“We have to burden everything. Not any relatives can come here (Wuhan). Only we two persons here.”

A medical worker in a protective suit looks at patients who diagnosed with the coronaviruses Credit: Chinatopix via AP

Following the online uproar over the government's treatment of Dr Li, the Party said it would be sending an team to “fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public” regarding the case.

Dr Li had worked at a hospital in the epicenter of the outbreak in the central city of Wuhan. He was one of eight medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not, writing on his Twitter-like Weibo account in December that he had seen a test sample that indicated the presence of a coronavirus similar to SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in a 2002-2003 outbreak that the government initially tried to cover-up.

Dr Li wrote that after he reported seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on January 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread falsehoods and warning him of punishment if he continued.

A second purpose built hospital is being built in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. Credit: AP

A copy of the statement signed by Li and posted online accused him of making “false statements” and “seriously disturbing social order.”

“This is a type of illegal behavior!” the statement said.

On Friday, China's Foreign Ministry said: "We express our condolences over the passing of Dr Li Wenliang and others and sincere sympathy to the bereaved families."

The outbreak, centred in Wuhan, has now infected more than 28,200 people globally and killed at least 565.

The World Health Organisation tweeted: “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang.

"We all need to celebrate work that he did” on the virus.

Within a half-hour of announcing earlier Friday that Dr Li was in critical condition, the hospital received nearly 500,000 comments on its social media post, many of them from people hoping he would pull through.

One wrote: “We are not going to bed.

"We are here waiting for a miracle.”

Meanwhile, a newborn became the youngest known person infected with the virus.

China finished building a second new hospital Thursday to isolate and treat patients and moved people with milder symptoms into makeshift quarantine centres at sports arenas, exhibition halls and other public spaces.

And testing of a new antiviral drug was set to begin on patients.

Also on Thursday, a third person in the UK tested positive for the coronavirus.

ITV News understands the man, who is thought to be middle-aged, became ill after travelling to Singapore.

The patient was diagnosed in Brighton and is now at Guy and St Thomas Hospital in London for treatment.

The man had not been to mainland China and it is not known if he is a British national.

It came as the Government expanded its list of countries and territories which it advised travellers to self-isolate and call NHS 111 after visiting if they begin feeling unwell.

As well as mainland China, the list now includes Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and Macau, as well as mainland China.

Anyone arriving from these locations should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people if they develop symptoms such as a cough, fever or shortness of breath, the advice warns.