Chinese social media pays tribute to virus whistleblower on his death anniversary

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Thousands of Chinese social media users paid tribute to Li Wenliang on Saturday, marking the one year anniversary of the death of the doctor who first blew the whistle on the coronavirus outbreak.

Li, one of a group of doctors in Wuhan who shared posts on social media warning of a SARS-like virus spreading in the central city in December 2019, was reprimanded by police for spreading "rumours".

The 34-year-old ophthalmologist's situation eventually became public, making him a potent symbol of the perils of offering a different narrative from the official Chinese messaging.

The Chinese public embraced Li as an ordinary man trying to do the right thing. His wife was pregnant and he was soon to be a father. He sent the “rumour” because he wanted to warn others.

The public also watched as he fell ill with the disease he was warning them about, eventually worsened, and died.

Li's death from Covid-19 was initially reported by Chinese state media on the night of February 6, 2020, but news outlets quickly withdrew their reporting. The next day, Wuhan Central Hospital announced his death.

Chinese people on Saturday grieved his death, online and offline. Mourners brought flowers to the hospital, while online some people demanded for freedom of speech — posts that were quickly censored.

'You live forever'

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has promoted an official narrative centred on its efficient handling of the outbreak as local transmissions have largely been brought under control and censors swiftly scrub the more critical comments from the internet.

But Li's personal page on the Twitter-like Weibo platform remains a rare space for users to commemorate the trauma of the early outbreak after the country imposed a strict lockdown on millions of people in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province.

Commenters marked the anniversary of his death with thousands of messages, ranging from candle emoticons to updates on their own lives addressed to the late doctor.

"Dr. Li, the weather is great today where I live ... everyone around me is trying their best in life, all is good, happy lunar new year" one Weibo user wrote Saturday in a comment on Li's last post, which has attracted more than a million comments, mostly after his death.

"I thought everyone would have forgotten you after a year," wrote another commenter.

"I was wrong, you live forever in the hearts of the Chinese people."

In Wuhan, no public signs of mourning

Wuhan city itself, however, showed few outward indications of mourning.

There was little sign of tributes outside Wuhan Central Hospital where the 24-year-old ophthalmologist first warned colleagues of the mysterious new virus, in stark contrast with the photos and bouquets left by mourners a year ago.

The city where the virus was first detected is now playing host to a delegation of World Health Organization inspectors searching for clues to the source of the pandemic.

The sensitive mission, which China had delayed throughout the first year of the international health crisis, has already visited the Huanan Seafood Market where many of the first known patients worked.

The experts have also toured a controversial Wuhan virology institute at the heart of conspiracy theories about the disease's origins.

Life in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, has largely returned to normal, with bustling shopping malls and lively night markets months after the world's first Covid lockdown was lifted in April.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)