As ‘zero-Covid’ nears end, Chinese remember whistleblower doctor

In this 2020 photo, flower bouquets sit outside of the Houhu Branch of Wuhan Central Hospital in honor of late ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Li, a doctor who was punished after raising the alarm about the new coronavirus, died on Feb. 7, 2020 after being infected by the pathogen.

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As China moves away from its strict “zero-Covid” controls, there has been a resurgence of online tributes to Li Wenliang, a whistleblower doctor who became a symbol of public dissatisfaction with the ruling Communist Party’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Li, who worked at a hospital in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was among eight doctors reprimanded by local police in early 2020 for “spreading rumors” after they warned colleagues about a new SARS-like disease that had recently emerged in the city. Weeks later, as the coronavirus shut down cities in China and began spreading around the world, Li died from the disease after contracting it at work. He was 33. 

Li’s death set off an online outpouring of grief and anger that is rarely seen in China, where there is little tolerance for dissent. Though Li was later officially exonerated and even held up as a national hero, criticism of the government in connection with his silencing and death has continued to be censored.

This week, Chinese officials announced they were abandoning key pillars of President Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid” strategy, including broad lockdowns, mass testing and quarantine in centralized government facilities. Many social media users rushed to tell Li, flooding his profile on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, with expressions of gratitude, celebration and grief.

“It’s been three years, Dr. Li, it’s over,” read a typical comment.

“Dr. Li, in the past three years, I often think of you at night. I burst into tears every time,” another commenter wrote from Sichuan province.

The latest easing of restrictions comes after mass protests across China against the “zero-Covid” controls, with some demonstrators calling for Xi to step down. While the measures have minimized deaths — 5,235 in China, compared with more than a million in the United States — they have exhausted the public as lagging vaccinations prevented them from transitioning to “living with the virus” as so many other countries have done.

“The epidemic is over, and so is my youth,” a commenter from the Inner Mongolia region said on Li’s page. 

Others expressed anxiety about the explosion in cases that is likely coming in a population of 1.4 billion that has barely been exposed to the virus.

“Three years later, friends around me are testing positive one after another, and the epidemic has entered a new stage,” read one comment from Beijing. 

Some Weibo users vowed to make Li proud as case numbers rise.

“I hope that the living comrades will not let you down, and the virus will be gone soon,” a commenter from Jiangsu province said. “Thank you, we are grateful to have had you and you’ll always be remembered.”

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