April 17, 2020
New children’s book tells the story of the Chinese doctor who tried to warn the world about coronavirus
by Nikki Griffiths
Dr. Li Wenliang was a Chinese ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital. He was declared a “martyr,” the highest honour the Communist Party can bestow on a citizen killed working to serve China, after he contracted and died from COVID-19 in February. Yet if the Chinese authorities had listened to Dr Wenliang’s warnings instead of trying to silence him, many deaths could have been prevented.
Back in December, Wenliang shared a diagnostics report with his colleagues on instant-messaging service WeChat, warning of his concerns of a new SARS like virus, suggesting protectional measures should be put in place. Screenshots of the chat were taken and shared publicly, eventually coming to the attention of the police. On 3 January 2020, Wenliang was interrogated by the Wuhan Public Security Bureau and forced to sign a letter admitting he was “spreading rumors” and “making false comments.” Just over a month later, he was dead after contracting the virus at the hospital.
Now New York Times best-selling author and co-creator of the Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls series Francesca Cavello has decided to write publish an illustrated children’s book entitled Dr. Li and the crown-wearing virus, based on this true story. Cavallo told CNN:
“In different ways, this is the same thing that happened to many other scientists and doctors in other countries … Leaders refused to listen to the scientists and the doctors and that caused huge delays and made the crisis so much worse.”
This is certainly true in the US, the country with the most confirmed cases and deaths in the world, the death toll now over 30,900. Yet Trump claims the peak is passed, predicting some states would reopen this month. In the UK, the death toll has reached 12,868 although the figure has been criticised for only documenting the numbers of those who have died in hospitals, leaving out, for example, care home deaths. The government has also been criticised for not taking action sooner and ignoring the World Health Organisation’s advice and guidelines, and today, it is expected lockdown will be extended for at least a further three weeks.
How might the spread of the pandemic have been contained if Wenliang’s warnings had been heeded in his own country? As The New York Times put it:
The government’s initial handling of the epidemic allowed the virus to gain a tenacious hold. At critical moments, officials chose to put secrecy and order ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis to avoid public alarm and political embarrassment.
The Wuhan Public Security Bureau eventually issued an apology to Wenliang’s family after being reprimanded by the Chinese Supreme Court, but this did nothing to save his life, or the now hundreds of thousands of others. Just days before his death Wenliang told The New York Times by text: “If the officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.”
Cavallo’s book, which she describes as ‘an illustrated story that celebrates the human desire to know and the life-saving power of scientific research’ is available to download for free in English, Spanish, Italian and German and she hopes it will create openness and discussion. She told CNN:
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and concern. I feel this myself and I don’t even have children.. I hope (the book) can provide families with an opportunity to have open communication about what is happening…
“I’m really floored by the response and by the fact that people want to feel united during this crisis.”
Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.