The first weeks of the health crisis were characterized by the incompetence of local authorities and the obsession with controlling the flow of information.
On December 30, 2019, 34-year-old Dr. Li Wenliang shared a post with his colleagues in a WeChat group saying that seven patients from a local fish market showed signs of a SARS-like illness and had been quarantined.
When interviewed by CNN, he explained that according to the tests he had seen, the disease was caused by a new coronavirus, from the same family of SARS viruses.
Li shared the results with his colleagues to warn them about the danger of the virus.
He had told his friends to notify their loved ones privately, but the messages began circulating almost immediately online without his name being hidden.
Wuhan police immediately accused him of spreading panic. Local authorities targeted him along with other doctors who tried to raise the alarm weeks before the virus spread widely.
If instead of trying to persecute those who raised the alarm, the Chinese authorities tried to intervene, the situation would certainly be different now.
To date, the virus has claimed the lives of over 420 people and has infected at least 20,000 others worldwide, including Li Wenliang, the doctor who raised the alarm, according to the most optimistic estimates.
On the same day that Li sent messages to his colleagues, an emergency note from the Wuhan Municipality Health Commission was published informing medical institutions that a number of patients from Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, the infamous fish market from which the epidemic is thought to have originated, had contracted an unknown form of pneumonia.
The news was accompanied by a notice that prohibited the disclosure of information without authorization.
At dawn on December 31st, the local health authorities met to discuss the situation. Li was summoned by officers to the hospital where he worked to explain how he learned of the cases, according to reports from the national media Beijing Youth Daily.
On January 3, Li was summoned to the local police station to be reprimanded for spreading rumors online and panicking with his chat messages.
According to reports from CNN, Li was forced to sign a document declaring his transgression and refrained from committing other “illegal acts”.
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The doctor was immediately released and returned to his job knowing that there was nothing he could do except follow the official plan.
On January 10, after treating a coronavirus patient, Li began coughing and developing a fever.
On 12 January he was hospitalized and his health deteriorated so that he was transferred to the intensive care unit.
On February 1, he tested positive for coronavirus.
From the beginning, the Chinese authorities have tried to control the flow of information, trying to silence all the rumors that differed from the official narrative, regardless of whether they were true or false.
On January 1, Wuhan police announced that they had taken legal action against eight people who published and shared information about the disease online.
The police announcements were then broadcast on CCTV, the Chinese national television, across the nation, making it clear once again that these rumors would be nipped in the bud by the authorities.
Over the next two weeks, the Wuhan Municipality Health Commission remained the only source of information on the development of the situation. Chinese scientists identified the pathogen on January 7. For the entire following week, no new cases were confirmed or reported and the authorities claimed that there was no evidence of transmission between people, that no medical staff member had been infected, and that the situation was under control.
Of course, the situation was anything but under control, and it was already too late.
On January 17 there were 41 victims, on January 20 the number had increased to 198.
On January 20, President Xi Jinping intervened by ordering that all necessary steps be taken to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In the evening, Zhong Nanshan, a medical expert who fought SARS 17 years ago, said on CCTV that the virus was transmissible from person to person.
Three days later Wuhan was placed under quarantine, but by now over 5 million people left the city to celebrate the beginning of the Chinese New Year.
On January 27, the mayor of Wuhan admitted that the government was unable to release information about the virus in time.
In late January, the incompetence of the Wuhan authorities was evident to all of China, and the original group of eight doctors who had initially sounded the alarm was regarded as a group of heroes even by the Chinese national media. Hundreds of lives would have been saved if they had been heard.
Even the Beijing Youth Daily interviewed Li and the article quickly went viral in China. However, the piece was once again promptly censored by the authorities.
On January 28, the Chinese Supreme Court criticized the zeal with which Wuhan police punished these “agitators”.
And now the whole world pays the consequences of Chinese censorship.