The death toll of the coronavirus in China, which hit the 800-mark on Sunday, is certain to rise further in the midst of an toxic air of fear and uncertainty. That a host of basic questions of the epidemic, namely its origin and how and when it will end (Or will it?), remains unanswered is scary and frightening.
But one thing seems certain. That the outbreak had been needlessly wrapped in secrecy at its early stage in the dark room of power in China's officialdom, which might have worsened the crisis, is equally, if not more, frightening and damaging.
With the public health crisis not yet over, the jury is out on whether the Chinese government has done a good job in its battle against the crisis. But the tragic death of Dr Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor, in the early hours of Friday, has given a verdict on China’s efforts in enhancing transparency. The verdict: The communist authorities had failed to disclose the outbreak as soon as practicable when it was badly needed in a public health crisis.
Dr Li, who was the first to warn of an outbreak of epidemic in Wuhan, had been arrested by the city's police for doing the right thing. Seven other people were also being held for questioning. They were branded by the Wuhan authorities and the official media as "rumor-mongers", only being freed after admitting they had published "wrong information" about the outbreak. The "rumors" were later found to be true.
Dr Li was later confirmed to have been infected with the deadly virus. He passed away at the age of 34.
Speaking to mainland media after the virus was everywhere, he said he did not care whether he would be vindicated. Truth is important, he said. A healthy society should not have only one voice, said Dr Li.
In his last words published on social media, he said he wished what his epitaph would say is: "He had spoken up for the people."
News of Li's death has sparked an outcry in China's social media, with netizens yearning, "We want freedom of speech."
This is because the misfortune of Dr Li has unleashed an outburst of anger of citizens over the communist authorities' crackdown against what they deem as dissenting voices and those who "speak up for the people" as trouble-makers.
The Li case has laid bare again suppression of different voices have cost dearly. Truth of the epidemic outbreak had been buried at a time when it was most needed. In times of fear and panic sparked by an attack from an unknown disease, any cover-up or moves that seem to be such could worsen panic and deepen fear.
Not just the 1.4 billion in mainland China have suffered as a result of the cover-up of the outbreak. The safety and well-being of people around the world have been endangered.
In its latest edition, Time magazine carries a portrait of Xi Jinping wearing a mask that says "China's Test" on its cover. The cover story says the coronavirus outbreak could derail Xi Jinping's China dream. The article points out the fact that the Chinese government has been able to build a new hospital that provides 1,000 beds in 10 days.
But its record in transparency, which is a vital element in public health, is a dismal failure, citing the fate of Dr Li, a "whistle-blower." The crisis shows, the article says, centralisation of power under Xi's leadership has made the Chinese society more vulnerable. The crisis shows that political centralization under Xi Jinping has made Chinese society vulnerable.
It is hardly coincidental another international magazine, The Economist, also put the coronavirus crisis on its cover in its February 1 edition. Its cover features a picture of the Earth carrying a five-star red flag mask. It says in its editorial the Chinese Communist Party has insisted that they could run the country more efficiently, being armed with science and technology, not necessarily a democratic system. Facts have proven that the high-handed strategy to fight the virus has done more harm than good.
Once branded Dr Li and the seven others as "rumour-monger", the official China Central Television has shied away from the wrong accusation of him in reports about his death. The reference to his plight as "some experiences that he had experienced during his (Dr Li's) lifetime" is yet another attempt to muddle the truth.
That China's official media dare not to tell the truth of Dr Li's plight even after his death speaks volume of the state of control over media and society at large.
Dr Li hoped he would be remembered as someone who had spoken up for the people. A modest act it sounds, it takes an abundance of courage to do so in China. For that, he will be remembered forever.