HONG KONG - The death of a mainland Chinese doctor who was detained by police last month for exposing the coronavirus outbreak has sparked an outpouring of anger and grief among Hong Kongers, who blame the Chinese authorities for covering up the epidemic which has killed over 630 people.
Dr. Li Wenliang, 34, an ophthalmologist who worked at the Wuhan Central Hospital in central China, died in the early hours Friday local time after he was infected during the battle against the outbreak, said the hospital in a short statement on social media.
Li told his medical school alumni group on the Chinese messaging app WeChat in late December that seven workers from a local market had been diagnosed with an illness that was similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and had been quarantined in his hospital. The mysterious virus was what would become the coronavirus epidemic that has so far killed at least 636 in China and infected more than 31,000 people.
Instead of being lauded for exposing the deadly disease, Li was detained by local police on Jan. 3 for “spreading false rumors” and forced to sign a statement to admit he had breached the law and had “seriously disrupted social order.”
Li was one of eight people who were detained by Chinese police for “spreading rumors” about the deadly disease’s outbreak. The fates of the other seven, also believed to be medical professionals, remained unknown.
On Friday night, dozens of mourners held a vigil at a downtown Hong Kong park to commemorate his passing and to express their outrage over the Chinese government’s suppression of speech freedom.
“If Dr Li had lived in a free society, he wouldn’t have been silenced,” said lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, who is also a medical doctor, at the vigil. “The disease would not have infected more than 31,000 people.”
Hong Kong has so far reported 22 confirmed cases of the deadly virus, one of which was fatal.
Mourners at the vigil, all wearing surgical masks amid an epidemic that has confined most people to their homes, blew whistles in unison to commemorate the whistle blowing doctor. A handful made tributes to Li and condemned the Chinese and Hong Kong governments for cracking down on free speech.
“Suppressing speech freedom has caused so many deaths,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk Yan. “We would only enjoy healthy lives when we have free speech.”
Just this week, Hong Kong police arrested a shopping mall security guard for allegedly spreading online rumors about multiple staff members catching a fever. Police said Tuesday that “the messages posted have exaggerated the seriousness of the situation and caused panic.”
Li’s death also prompted outrage on Hong Kong social media platforms, which were awash with posts expressing anger and grief.
“Who killed Dr Li? The police chief or ‘Dada’ who controls the world?” asked a Facebook user. “Dada,” which means uncle in Chinese, is an online euphemism for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“He didn’t die of coronavirus, he died of being under the Communist regime,” said another post.
The coronavirus outbreak has stoked unprecedented resentment toward the Hong Kong government, with many people blaming top officials for refusing to close all its borders with China and its slow response to the crisis.
Over the past weeks, several small scale protests have broken out in neighborhoods where the government had planned to place quarantine centers nearby. Riot police had sprayed tear gas at crowds who placed barriers to block roads and set objects on fire.
The epidemic also has sparked unprecedented anxiety in the semi-autonomous city, which has been roiled by anti-government protests since June of last year.
Citizens camped outside shops overnight this week in the hope of buying surgical masks, while others snapped up household necessities from rice to toilet rolls.
Additionally, there has been a severe shortage of surgical masks and sanitizing agents such as alcohol hand rubs and wipes, with at least 10 private clinics temporarily closed due to a shortage of surgical masks. The Hong Kong Medical Association is warning that hundreds more will have to close if supplies do not arrive soon.