WUHAN, China (CNN) – In a matter of days, Dr. Li Wenliang went from treating patients to becoming one.
The 34-year-old ophthalmologist was diagnosed Saturday with the Wuhan coronavirus.
But if the action had been taken when he and others started sounding the alarms, the severity of the outbreak might have been understood sooner.
Struggling to communicate, Li spoke with CNN briefly by phone.
You can hear the hospital machines pulsing in the background.
It was back in late December when Li first warned friends on WeChat about a SARS-like disease going around.
But hours after hitting “send,” Wuhan city health officials tracked Li down, questioning where he got the information.
Within days, they closed the suspected source of the virus – a seafood market – and announced the outbreak.
But instead of being praised, Li got a call from Wuhan city police.
With Li coughing too much and breathing too poorly to speak by phone, we asked Li by text how he felt about what happened.
“I felt a little afraid, afraid I would be detained, afraid my family would worry,” Li responded.
He agreed to sign a document admitting to “spreading rumors online” and “severely disrupting social order.”
It reads, “We want you to cooperate with the police and listen to our reminder and stop the illegal act. Can you do that?”
Li answered, “Yes I can.”
In the weeks that followed, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission maintained there was “no obvious evidence for human to human transmission,” no infection of healthcare workers, and that the outbreak was “preventable and controllable.”
And with that, the people of Wuhan continued about their normal lives.
Then came a sudden jump in infections.
China’s central government took over, scrambling to contain a spreading virus with a rising death toll.
Chinese state media first reported that Li was one of several whistleblowers silenced by police.
Calls for Li and the others to be vindicated grew online, and China’s Supreme Court even weighed in, criticizing the Wuhan police adding “it might have been a fortunate thing if the public had listened to this ‘rumor’ at the time, but for many including Li and his parents, it was too late.
They all contracted the coronavirus.
Li is now fighting for his life alone in a quarantine.
But online, he’s considered a hero.
Tens of thousands are praising his attempts to sound the alarm ahead of what’s become a global health emergency.
Following the Supreme Court’s statement, the Wuhan police issued a statement saying those accused of spreading rumors had only been summoned for a talk and not detained or fined.
Wuhan police have not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission declined to comment.