A Hero’s Story: Dr. Li Wenliang

When the first coughs could be heard emanating from the markets of Wuhan in December, I would be willing to bet most people thought nothing of it.

It’s December- all kinds of coughs, colds, and cases of flu are going around – no need to panic.

However, those coughs would soon progress into a deep, grumbling wail from the lungs – incapacitating its hosts until they were left gasping for air in a hospital bed.

Soon, it became apparent that this was a new, unforeseen enemy – one much worse than a typical cold or flu that circulates every year. The new decade was to start in the hands of a new enemy.

One man who warned us was Dr. Li Wengliang. Just five months ago, blew the whistle on coronavirus – describing it as a SARS-type of illness to his medical students on WhatsApp.

Born in 1986, Li was a diligent and hard-working student at the Wuhan University School of Medicine. His passion for both medicine and altruism was apparent, and his friendly, studious demeanor made him both respected and well-liked. In 2014, he became a practicing ophthalmologist in Wuhan.

It’s harrowing to consider just how different the world was last December. These were the days of unregulated social gatherings, open food markets, free travel, and unlimited visits outside. Wuhan’s wet markets already seem like a relic from a lost world. It was here that Li noticed an influenza-like ailment that was resistant to conventional drugs. When he shared his findings, he was reprimanded by Chinese authorities for spreading ‘false information’ and was subsequently labeled a ‘rumormonger’ by the powers-that-be.

The Chinese government squashed any claim that there was a deadly new pandemic on the way. His WhatsApp conversation was leaked and was subsequently described as nonsense, as the wet markets continued to operate in their usual, unsanitary manner. Cases were now beginning to stack up, deaths were being reported, and Li took the bold action of criticizing his government’s lack of free speech:

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”

On January 8, Li was infected with the virus – despite the best efforts of his peers, he succumbed to the disease on February 7 – he was 33 years old. His death sent shockwaves throughout the country. Criticism of the government was abundant, advocacy for free speech was rife. One user stated “The police that reprimanded Dr. Li and said he was making up rumors… will they apologize to him now?!”. The hashtag #wewantfreedomofspeech circulated rapidly, but all derogatory and critical posts about the government were soon deleted by the censors.

We’re still fighting the enemy that Dr. Li warned us about. If his government had acted sooner on his discovery, perhaps our battle would be easier. It’s impossible to speculate – but Li’s abrasive and honest manner, even in the face of government adversity, should not be overlooked – not now, not ever,

It’s a new decade – we have a new enemy – and we all need new heroes. Dr. Li was the first of these heroes. His courage and determination to his craft are truly exceptional.

Whilst we all hope this virus will eventually be eliminated, the life of Dr. Li Wenliang must be celebrated and remembered forever.

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