EVEN AS MORE INFORMATION EMERGES about the COVID-19 outbreak, basic facts such as its origin or the time of the first infection are still unclear. Chinese officials originally said the first patient started to show symptoms on Dec. 8, 2019. Early cases linked back to a seafood market in Wuhan. But a study by a group of Chinese researchers in the medical journal The Lancet found the first patient fell ill on Dec. 1, meaning the infection first occurred in November or earlier. The first patient, a man in his 70s, did not visit the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and, of the first 41 cases, 13 had no link to the marketplace.
By the end of December, eight medical professionals—including Dr. Li Wenliang—had spoken out about the unknown pneumonia. But the government reprimanded them for spreading rumors and told them to go back to work. Song remembers reading about Li’s warning on social media but didn’t know then if it was a rumor or real threat. He figured the government would take the appropriate measures.
China informed the World Health Organization about the virus on Dec. 31, as local officials assured the public they had contained the disease and that it could not pass from human to human. During political meetings in early January, Wuhan leaders focused on future healthcare plans without mentioning the novel coronavirus.
President Xi Jinping first spoke publicly about the coronavirus on Jan. 20, the same day renowned epidemiologist Dr. Zhong Nanshan announced in a TV interview that the virus could be transmitted between humans. Yet the official Communist party magazine Qiushi wrote in February that Xi gave instruction on the virus response to top leaders on Jan. 7. That raises the questions: Why did the government not take action for another two weeks? Why did a Chinese New Year banquet for 40,000 families take place in Wuhan on Jan. 18?
Because of the top-down nature of the Chinese government, city and province leaders could only respond to the outbreak with permission from Xi. A few days after Xi’s Jan. 20 speech, officials shut Wuhan down, barring transportation into and out of the city. They halted public transportation, closed businesses, and quarantined families in their homes. The shutdown spread to the rest of Hubei province and other cities in China where more people caught the virus. With no work or school in Wuhan and everyone stuck indoors, citizens devoured news about the epidemic—both real and fake—and vented their anger and frustration on Chinese social media.
Meanwhile, with public transportation cut and ambulance services overloaded, the sick walked for miles to get to a hospital. Some begged for help for their loved ones as overcrowded hospitals turned the sick away, leaving them to die at home.
WHEN LI, ONE OF THE WHISTLEBLOWER DOCTORS, died on Feb. 6, tributes and angry diatribes against the government poured out on social media. After Li told medical school classmates about the unknown virus, authorities reprimanded him and forced him to sign a statement saying he made false comments to “severely disturb the social order.” He went back to work and contracted the virus from a patient. On Chinese social media site Weibo, the hashtag #WeWantFreedomOfSpeech started trending with over 2 million views and more than 5,500 posts in five hours before censors deleted it.
“This is a real hit to [the Chinese Communist Party’s] legitimacy as you see an outburst from people who would otherwise be apolitical,” said Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China at the U.S.-based watchdog group Freedom House. “The response to the doctor’s death was unprecedented in its sheer number and scale and how much WeChat feeds and groups were inundated about this.”