One day. Two deaths. A year later, despite the hundreds of thousands of deaths that followed, the loss of two people — one in China and one in the United States — still reverberates in two countries where the pandemic took drastically different paths.
Saturday is the anniversary of the death of Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan, China, from the illness that he had sounded the alarm about, before being silenced by the authorities there.
At the end of December 2019, Dr. Li warned his medical school classmates, in an online chat room, of a lab report about a spreading virus that resembled Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, a coronavirus that had spread from China 17 years earlier. Shortly after that, he was summoned in the middle of the night by health officials, and later by the police, and forced to sign a statement disavowing his “illegal behavior.” Without naming Dr. Li, Chinese state television news reported that eight people in Wuhan had been punished for spreading “rumors” about the virus.
Dr. Li was 34, and expecting a second child with his wife. His silencing and his death set off rare waves of fury and revolt online in China, flooding Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter, with an illustration of him muzzled by a barbed wire mask.
Though his initial warning wasn’t heeded, China reversed course, locking down Wuhan and offering the world a forewarning about the dangers of the virus. A year later, far from the long months of harsh lockdown, the city shows what awaits when the virus is contained: unmasked faces, joyous get-togethers and daily commutes.
The anniversary of Dr. Li’s death early on Feb. 7 in China (and Feb. 6 in the United States) inspired an outpouring of online messages in China, including many from people who warned that the lessons from his persecution should not be forgotten. Many left comments, some with emoticons of lit candles, on Dr. Li’s personal page on Weibo.
“So many people have visited here to thank you,” one message said. “We must not forget,” said another, a sentiment echoed by many other comments.
On Sunday in China, comments with a hashtag created in remembrance of Dr. Li had attracted over 410 million views on Weibo, and — even with censorship — many longer posts took aim at the official censorship and secrecy that led to his punishment.
Some mourning Dr. Li cited his own words in an interview days before he died: “I think a healthy society should not have just one voice.”
Saturday is also exactly one year since the first known coronavirus-related death in the United States, where a unified pandemic strategy never existed under the Trump administration and the virus was never controlled.
On Feb. 6, 2020, weeks before there was evidence that the coronavirus was spreading in U.S. communities, Patricia Dowd, an otherwise healthy 57-year-old auditor at a Silicon Valley semiconductor manufacturer, developed flulike symptoms and abruptly died in her kitchen in San Jose, Calif. The startling discovery months later that her death was from Covid-19 rewrote the timeline of the virus’s early spread in the United States, and suggested that the optimistic assumptions that drove federal policies over the early weeks of the outbreak were misplaced.
“R.I.P. Patricia,” Pam Foley, a San Jose City Council member who represents Ms. Dowd’s district, wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “You are loved & deeply missed.”
A year and over 460,00 deaths later, about 1.3 million people in the United States are receiving a vaccine dose every day and the spread of the virus is finally slowing, but the threat of more contagious variants looms. A return to normalcy remains an aspiration, but only that, a notion that is far from reality.