China and Viruses: Corona and Sars

A tale of Whistleblowers

On 30th December 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist working at Wuhan Central Hospital sent a first warning about the deadly coronavirus outbreak to his fellow medics in a chat group. The message went viral in China and four days later he was summoned by Police and was reprimanded for making false comments that severely disturbed the social order.

Unfortunately, by 10th January 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang started displaying symptoms of coronavirus infection and passed away on 7th February 2020. His death sparked outrage in China, leading to an investigation by the country’s highest anti-corruption agency. Following the investigation, Dr. Li Wenliang was exonerated of the charges and disciplinary action was taken against Police personnel. An apology was issued by Wuhan’s public security bureau to the family of Dr. Li Wenliang and it promised to “conscientiously draw lessons and improve” its operations.

The total number of reported cases of Covid-19 are 332935 with 12955 deaths (as on 24th March 2020).

This is not a first for the world or for China.

In 2003, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome commonly known as SARS virus started spreading in China. The number of cases of SARS was being under-reported by the Chinese Government.

On 4th of April 2003, Dr. Jiang Yanyong, a Chinese Physician emailed a letter to Chinese Central Television – 4 and Phoenix TV (Hongkong) stating various details pertaining to the said virus. Thereafter, this information provided by Dr. Yanyong got leaked to Western news organizations and by 8th April 2003, journalists from Time and Wall Street Journal contacted Dr. Yanyong. Subsequently, Time published news article having details provided by Dr. Yanyong with Title “Beijing SARS Attack”. This resulted in proactive dealing of SARS by the Chinese government resulting in the containment of the disease, which also covered resignation by Mayor of Beijing (Mr. Meng Xuenong) and Minister of Public Health of China.

Dr. Yanyong said that he went public with his claims because he feared that “a failure to disclose accurate statistics about the illness will only lead to more deaths”.

Dr. Yanyong was awarded a Ramon Magsaysay Award, recognizing his brave and bold stand in China for the truth, spurring life-saving measures to confront and contain the deadly threat of SARS. The total number of reported cases of SARS were 8098 and 774 deaths.
These two incidents narrate a tale of chance, while in Dr. Yanyong’s case a leak lead to an end to the spread of deadly SARS in 2003, in Dr. Wenliang’s case it led to reprimand, harassment and death. The lack of proper channel for a whistleblower to report an incident or occurrence of this magnitude has made Coronavirus one of the most unpredictable disasters of our times. We cannot fathom the scale of loss of lives, economic slowdown, and unemployment etc. that this virus brings with itself.

Both the doctors felt compelled to share the said information for a timely action to prevent a worldwide disaster. We must collectively work towards creating easier, smoother and safer methods for whistleblowers to report such instances without any fear of consequences.

Whether it’s the Government, Public or Private sector entities, it is essential to ensure the protection of whistleblowers, so that world at large does not suffer the consequences of the suppression of their voice. Today, we have a global health hazard, that shall affect every aspect of our lives, which could easily have been prevented.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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