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Chinese ophthalmologist and coronavirus whistle-blower dies

An ophthalmologist who Chinese authorities attempted to silence during the initial stages of the coronavirus outbreak has died after contracting the disease himself from a glaucoma patient.

Li Wenliang was declared dead on Friday after failed attempts to resuscitate him at a hospital in Wuhan, the government-controlled Chinese newspaper Global Times reported.

The 34-year-old eye doctor was widely regarded as a hero for his bravery to speak out about the virus in December, despite threats from Chinese officials who tried to pacify him while playing down the severity of the outbreak.

Li, according to reports, was targeted by police for “spreading rumours” in late December after he posted a warning in his medical school alumni group on the Chinese messaging app WeChat.

His message cautioned that seven patients from a local seafood market had been diagnosed with a SARS-like illness. They were quarantined at Wuhan Central Hospital – where Li worked – and he urged colleagues to wear protective clothing.

Four days later he was reportedly summoned to the local public security bureau, which accused him of making false comments and disturbing the social order. He was told that if he continued to talk about the disease he would be “brought to justice”.

Li was one of eight people authorities targeted for sharing false information and agreed not to discuss his concerns in public again.

A few weeks later, in early January, he treated a woman with glaucoma without realising she was also a coronavirus patient, The Guardian reported.

He appears to have been infected during the operation before being hospitalised on 12 January and testing positive for the coronavirus on 1 February. He died seven days later from the virus that has now infected 28,000 people and killed more than 560.

Li’s death was also the subject of much confusion and anger across China. The Global Times prematurely announced his death the day before his actual passing, citing friends and doctors, before later deleting the post. Other Chinese media outlets also deleted their reports of his death.

According to CNN, the topics “Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology”, and “We want freedom of speech,” soon began to trend on China’s Twitter-like platform, Weibo. Each gained tens of thousands of views before disappearing from the censored platform.