A Chinese doctor who issued an early warning about the coronavirus outbreak before it was officially recognised died of the virus on Friday, triggering a wave of public mourning and rare expressions of anger towards the government online.
The death of the doctor who sounded the alarm, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, came as Chinese President Xi Jinping assured his U.S. counterpart that China was doing all it could to contain the virus that has killed almost 640 people.
China was gradually achieving results and was confident it could defeat the epidemic with no long-term consequences for economic development, Xi told President Donald Trump in a telephone call, according to state television.
China’s central bank vowed further support for the world’s second-biggest economy, with the outbreak expected to knock 2 percentage points, or more, off its first-quarter growth, from 6%, analysts say.
Chinese stocks had their worst week since May, while elsewhere in Asia, financial markets slipped after several days of gains.
The death of Li, 34, spurred an outpouring of grief on social media. He was one of eight people reprimanded by police in the city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the flu-like contagion in central Hubei province, for spreading “illegal and false” information about it.
Li’s social media messages warning of a new “SARS-like” coronavirus – a reference to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) which originated in China and killed almost 800 people around the world in 2002-2003 – triggered the wrath of police.
China was accused of trying to cover up SARS.
“Wuhan indeed owes Li Wenliang an apology,” Hu Xijin, editor of the government-backed Global Times tabloid, said on social media. “Wuhan and Hubei officials also owe a solemn apology to the people of Hubei and this country.”
Li was forced to sign a letter on Jan. 3, saying he had “severely disrupted social order” and was threatened with charges.
“We deeply mourn the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang … After all-effort rescue, Li passed away on 2:58 a.m.,” the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily said on Twitter.
Social media users called Li a hero, accusing authorities of incompetence in the early stages of the outbreak.
“Light a candle and pay tribute,” one person posted on the Weibo platform.
Zhan Jiang, a professor of international journalism and communication at Beijing Foreign Studies University, called on his Weibo account for a law to shield people like Li.
It would “protect people who have the inborn sense of right and wrong in telling faithful words to the public, and reveal the truth”, he said in his post.
Some media also described Li as a hero “willing to speak the truth” but there were signs that discussion of his death was being censored.
The topics “the Wuhan government owes doctor Li Wenliang an apology” and “we want free speech” briefly trended on Weibo late on Thursday, but yielded no search results on Friday.
The death toll in mainland China reached 636 with 73 more deaths recorded by Thursday, and 3,143 new confirmed infections, taking the total to 31,161 cases, the National Health Commission said.
The 3,143 new infections were down from Wednesday’s figure of 3,694 and 3,887 on Tuesday, but experts warned it was too early to say if the data represented a trend.
The virus has spread around the world, with 320 cases in 27 countries and regions outside mainland China, according to a Reuters tally of official statements.
Two deaths have been reported outside China, in Hong Kong and the Philippines, but how deadly and contagious the virus is remains unclear, prompting countries to quarantine hundreds of people and cut travel links with China.
There were 41 new cases among about 3,700 people quarantined in a cruise ship moored off Japan, for a total of 61 cases on board.
In Hong Kong, a cruise ship with 3,600 passengers and crew was quarantined for a third day after three people who had been on board were found to be infected.
Taiwan, which has 16 cases, banned international cruise ships from docking.
BAD WEEK FOR STOCKS
Britain confirmed a third case, in which the victim caught the coronavirus after visiting an Asian country other than China. The government did not identify the country but issued a list of places, saying travellers from those countries should isolate themselves if they developed symptoms.
The list included Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand, as well as China.
China has chafed at some travel curbs imposed by other countries, which the WHO says are unnecessary, but its internal restrictions have also been harsh.
Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, have been under virtual lockdown for two weeks. The state planner said it was coordinating with state agriculture conglomerates to increase supplies of staples to Hubei.
Beijing resembles a ghost town, with main thoroughfares and tourist spots almost deserted, as the country has sealed off cities, cancelled flights and closed factories, cutting supply lines to global businesses.
The ramifications are being felt far and wide.
Record low prices for liquefied natural gas were roiling the global gas market, while the container shipping trade is being thrown out of sync, threatening months of delays as lines re-route cargoes away from Chinese ports, industry sources say.
Foreign investors are also counting the cost.
Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co extended production suspensions at Chinese plants, joining a growing number of automakers facing stoppages due to supply-chain disruptions.
Japan’s Fast Retailing, which runs clothing chain Uniqlo, said it had temporarily closed about 370 of its 750 shops in China.