First, a little background:
On December 30, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang messaged his classmates alerting them to what he referred to as “confirmed diagnoses of 7 cases of SARS.” It was not yet known that the cases Dr. Li observed were of a new disease. In subsequent messages, Dr. Li explained that the virus was confirmed to be in the family of coronaviruses (like the virus that caused the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak), but the specific strain was not yet typed.
The new disease, Covid-19, is caused by the virus dubbed SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-2 is so named as it is related to SARS-CoV, the virus that cause SARS. SARS-CoV-2 is the rye dough SARS-CoV the sourdough. Covid-19 is the rye bread to SARS the sourdough bread.
On January 3rd, 2020, the CCP arrested and reprimanded Dr. Li Wenliang and 7 others.
On January 8th, Dr. Li contracted Covid-19 from a patient he treated.
On February 7th, Dr. Li died from Covid-19. He was mourned and praised by the overwhelming majority of Chinese citizens, who did not agree with the official reprimand. They took to the web to vocalize their wish for justice for him.
Thanks to the outcry, the National Supervisory Commission launched an investigation. On Thursday, March 19th, the investigation closed, concluding that the case was improperly handled. In an extremely rare move, Police of Wuhan City apologized to Dr. Li’s family and withdrew the reprimand letter they issued him.
Now, a few things I want to note:
In the group chat on 12/31/2019, a colleague cautioned Dr. Li against his notice, stating that such alarm could cause the whole group to be censored. Dr. Li replied by asking the group not to spread the information further, but simply caution family and relatives.
Dr. Li’s official reprimand letter specifically cited his language that referred to the new outbreak as confirmed cases of SARS as “unlawful behavior.”
Yet, when asked to comment for the article published on 01/31/2020, Zeng Guang, lead epidemiologist at the Chinese CDC praised the early whistle-blowers, Dr. Li among them, for their vigilance (by then Wuhan had already locked down for over a week, a move that saved countless lives). At the same time, the Chinese government was censoring comments online with regards to the incident. The extensive social media scrubbing meant the removal of countless mentions of the new disease.
Lastly, the fact that the Chinese government launched a formal investigation, concluding with clearing Dr. Li’s name posthumously, is tremendous. I believe this was the direct doing of the Chinese people speaking out for his honor and his sacrifice.
I wanted to note the above because:
By the rule of the Chinese government, surveillance of civilians is a fact of everyday life. I personally believe that nothing over the internet enjoys complete privacy, and is subject to some form of data tracking, as in the case from espionage to targeted ads. But that’s a topic for another day.
I believe the Chinese government moved swiftly (5 days, from 12/30/2019 to 01/03/2020) to reprimand Dr. Li because he said the cases he observed were confirmed diagnoses of SARS. I think his use of the word SARS also prompted his colleague to caution him, and is why he clarified that the culprit virus belongs to the same family as the virus that causes SARS.
I think this is significant because during its initial outbreak, SARS had a death rate of 9.5%, making it extremely fearsome. Additionally, while the Chinese government mobilized quickly to respond to the outbreak, officials also behaved deplorably with regards to transparency. They did not inform the World Health Organization of the outbreak until February 11, 2002, though they knew “cases had been detected in the province as far back as 16 November 2002.”
Fast forward to the onset of Covid-19, and the very mention of SARS makes tension. Dr. Li was brave enough to warn his fellow classmates, who are all healthcare professionals. (SARS disproportionately affected healthcare workers in 2002-2003, in addition to close contacts of patients, because its transmission required significant exposure to the virus).
By the next day, on 12/31/2019, WHO China country office learned of the cases. The next week, on 01/07/2020 Chinese researchers successfully isolated the virus. Five days later, 01/12/2020, China shared the genetic sequence of the novel coronavirus with the WHO. The Chinese government raced to provide public health organizations and researchers with science-based facts, all the while quashing rampant online discussions of the SARS-like disease in a misguided effort to quell panic. They got some things right, and some things wrong.
All of which leads to, how the significance of their formal apology to the widow and family of Dr. Li Wenliang, deserves serious recognition. Those saying, “too little, too late” because Dr. Li is no longer living, miss the point. It is important that he be remembered, and honored in his remembrance. It’s important that while heads of governments everywhere are not fond of admitting wrongdoing, in this instance the Chinese government did the right thing and apologized. It’s important that they formally withdrew his reprimand, so his place in official history is not tarnished. It’s important that the Chinese people spoke up, and the Chinese government acted on what they heard. No matter what, this is good news for doing the right thing, and I’m here for that.