China mourned the death Friday of Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old eye doctor from Wuhan, who was among eight whistleblowers reprimanded by local authorities for trying to sound the alarm about the deadly virus in late December of last year.
His death has sparked an explosion of anger and sorrow among the general public in China, including residents from Wuhan, the epic center of the outbreak, and hundreds of thousands of netizens.
"I feel we should honor his spirits. He was someone who dared to tell the truth and was dedicated to his work, but he ended up sacrificing himself. I call upon everyone to care for his family," a Wuhan resident told VOA.
Li died at 2:58 a.m. local time Friday, a week after he was diagnosed as being infected during the fight against the outbreak, according to a statement released by Wuhan Central Hospital, where he worked.
He left behind a five-year-old son and his wife, pregnant with their second child.
On Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging platform, many also mourned the loss of Li and expressed hope that those who have wronged him would be punished and held accountable for the initial cover-up of the epidemic.
"Rest in peace, Dr. Li. I hope no one lies in heaven," a Weibo user wrote.
"His name has to be cleared along with the names of those seven other whistle-blowers," another user's post read.
In late December, Li warned colleagues on social media about a SARS-like virus that later became the novel coronavirus epidemic. He and seven other people, who reportedly also work in the city's hospitals, were detained by Wuhan police in early January for "spreading false rumors."
Branded by authorities as a rumormonger, Li was forced to "admit" he had "breached the law and seriously disrupted social order," according to a document, which he signed and was widely circulated on the internet.
Many more netizens responded positively to news reports the National Supervision Commission will launch a thorough investigation into issues involving Li's death.
"I hope the authorities will get to the bottom of this matter and hold those both in the local and central level accountable," a Weibo user wrote in response to the commission's investigation.
Another complained: "These officials have always been slow in doing their job right. What a waste of our taxpayers' money!"
According to a video circulated online, Li's mother allegedly expressed her gratitude toward the public's support and took pride in her son's integrity and honesty.
"He was only 34. He was such a promising and talented person. He never told lies and was devoted to his duties," she said.
"[His wife] is due in June. What are we going to do? His family has now been broken apart!" she added.
Chen Bingzhong, a former health official, also lauded Li as a true hero.
He said if the local government haven't had turned a deaf ear to Li's warning, China and the world would have a less tough fight against the coronavirus epidemic.
"It has now come to light that these eight people all work at the frontline in hospitals. They had first-hand experience with the deadly virus. They spoke by the book. And the authorities should have had taken their words seriously," Chen said.
"Failing to act on their warnings, the authorities ended up forcing them to hush up. How despicable!" he added.
Albert Ho, chairman of Hong Kong Alliance in support of Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, agreed, saying Li served as a reminder to the Chinese government's incapability.
"The government leaders should be made to become aware that when the people become so sad about the death of Dr. Li, who is now accepted as a symbol of courage, a symbol of consciousness for the people, then the leaders should feel shameful about their failing to do their job, about their failing to take proper measures at a proper time to protect public health," Ho said.
He said Li's death reflects the problematic system of governance in China and its regime, which is often run by lies and violence.
He urged top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party not to shift the blame and responsibility in their negligence in handling the outbreak.
Ho's group is holding a memorial event Friday night in Hong Kong to mourn Li's death.
Seemingly acknowledging the public's outcry, the Chinese government also paid its respects.
"The National Health Commission sends our deepest condolences to Dr. Li's family over his death," Song Shuli, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Health, told a news briefing Friday.
"Since the outbreak, an array of medical workers has put their own safety behind to care for the public's health, working courageously at the frontline of the epidemic," she added.
Online comments toward the official eulogy appeared negative, though, calling it "insincere" and "patronizing."