BEIJING (Reuters) – A Chinese doctor who was reprimanded for “spreading rumours” about the coronavirus before it was officially recognised died on Friday after testing positive for the virus, triggering a wave of public mourning online in China.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at a hospital in Wuhan, the city at the epicentre of the outbreak, was one of eight people reprimanded by Wuhan police last month for spreading “illegal and false” information about the coronavirus.
The Wuhan hospital where Li worked said in a statement on its Weibo account that he died at 2.58 am local time on Friday.
Li, who was 34, had told a group of doctors on Chinese social media and messaging platform WeChat that seven cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had been confirmed linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, believed to be the source of the virus.
He posted a picture of a test result confirming a “SARS-like” coronavirus in a patient sample, according to a screenshot of the WeChat conversations seen and verified by Reuters.
Li said on China’s microblogging site Weibo on Feb. 1 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Reuters was unable to reach Li’s family for comment.
A letter to Li issued by the Wuhan police bureau on Jan. 3 said he had “severely disrupted social order” with his WeChat messages.
He was asked to sign the letter as a promise to stop such illegal behaviour immediately, and if he refused to comply he would face criminal charges.
His 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.
News of Li’s death soared to the top read topics on China’s Twitter-like Weibo on Friday, with over 1 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.”
Reports that he had died had surfaced earlier, before midnight local time in China, as Chinese state media such as the Global Times posted on their Twitter accounts that he had passed away, before deleting them later.
China has now reported more than 500 deaths and 26,000 cases of the coronavirus. China has vowed repeatedly to be open and transparent in dealing with the coronavirus.
Reporting by Beijing newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Michael Perry