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Chinese President Xi Jinping finally visited the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan on Tuesday, declaring victory over the virus and lauding medical workers as “the most beautiful angels" and "messengers of light and hope.”
But back in Beijing, Xi’s army of censors was working overtime to once again silence a doctor who was speaking about the regime’s mishandling of the outbreak, and about efforts to muzzle doctors who were trying to raise the alarm.
“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared. I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” Ai Fen, a doctor at Wuhan’s Central Hospital told Chinese magazine Renwu. The article containing her comments was published on the magazine’s website Tuesday — and subsequently deleted..
Ai’s account of how she tried to alert her superiors about the growing coronavirus threat in December but was rebuked and told to stay quiet was posted on WeChat at the same time, and it went viral.
But almost immediately, the post was censored and effectively removed from the social network.
But WeChat users were determined for the article to be widely read, and reposted the story continuously. When that didn’t work, they wrote it backward and translated it into English, German and Japanese, in a bid to fool the censorship algorithms.
Some users even rewrote the article using pinyin, emoji, braille, and morse code.
Ai’s interview was published just 24 hours after a fourth colleague of hers died in Wuhan’s Central Hospital, where two more doctors remain in a critical condition.
Ophthalmologist Zhu Heping this week became the fourth doctor at the hospital to succumb to the disease. It’s the same hospital where Li Wenliang, the doctor who became a household name after he tried to raise the alarm about the disease in late December, but was silenced by police in the city, died last month after contracting the disease from a patient he was treating.
According to data collected by Caixin, the Central Hospital has been the hardest hit of all medical facilities in Wuhan, with 230 of its 4,000 medical staff diagnosed with COVID-19. The high rate of infection there is leading more and more frontline staff to speak out.
“The false information released by the relevant departments — claiming the disease was controllable and would not spread from human-to-human — left hundreds of doctors and nurses in the dark, doing all they could to treat patients without knowing about the epidemic,” a Central Hospital department head, speaking anonymously to Caixin, said.
“And even when they fell ill, they could not report it. They could not alert their colleagues and the public in time despite their sacrifice. This is the most painful loss and lesson.”
In her interview, Ai says she now deeply regrets that she didn’t persist and keep blowing the whistle. If she had, she says, the government might have imposed its aggressive measures earlier, and many of her patients and colleagues might have lived.
One reader comment posted under Ai’s account was shared widely on WeChat, before it too, was censored.
“The doctor is risking her job to take the interview, the reporter is risking being charged with fabricating rumors to write the article, media is risking being shut down to publish the article, and people on WeChat are risking having their accounts blocked to spread that article. Today we need this ridiculous level of tacit cooperation just for a word of truth.”
Beijing has shown its willingness throughout the coronavirus outbreak to silence and censor negative comments or those who would seek to highlight any shortcomings in the regime’s efforts to contain the outbreak. WeChat account holders inside and outside of China have been prevented from sharing information about coronavirus, and the level of censorship was ramped up as the virus spread.
The authorities have also been willing to physically detain citizen journalists in Wuhan who tried to post videos showing what life was like in the city under lockdown. At least three are currently missing, their whereabouts unknown.
Cover: Dr. Fan Zhongjie, a respiratory specialist in charge of about 30 critical COVID-19 patients in his section, works in a hospital in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (FeatureChina via AP Images)