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Public backlash over China gov't accusations against docs who sounded coronavirus alarm

This electron microscopic image provided by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data) shows the new coronavirus.

BEIJING (Mainichi) -- Chinese authorities have come under fire for accusing eight doctors who sounded the alarm over the new coronavirus of "spreading a false rumor."

Eight people in Wuhan, Hubei province -- the outbreak's epicenter -- were discussing the new virus in an online chat group before public security officials made the accusation in December 2019, right after the mass infection there came to light. News reports and other information subsequently identified the eight as local doctors.

As the doctors were pointing out the seriousness of the situation, members of the public are now decrying the Chinese government's response, with one saying the outbreak is a "man-made disaster" and another calling for the government to apologize.

Wuhan's public health authorities disclosed on Dec. 31, 2019, that there were patients with pneumonia of unknown cause. After concerns were raised in China about a possible resurgence of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), city authorities announced on Jan. 1 that they had accused eight citizens for "spreading a fake rumor on the internet and negatively impacting society."

However, on Jan. 27 an online news outlet affiliated with the Beijing Youth Daily reported statements by a Wuhan hospital doctor, whom the publication described as one of the eight accused citizens.

According to the report, the doctor was discussing test results for local patients hospitalized with the mysterious pneumonia in the chat group on Dec. 30, 2019. Opinions exchanged in the chat group included that seven of the patients were diagnosed with SARS, while another poster averred that the virus had been identified as a coronavirus but that it could be a different type.

At around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 31, the doctors were summoned by Wuhan's public health authorities and their workplace inspection departments due to the content of the online chat. They were ordered to write self-critical essays and sign written admonitions on Jan. 3.

The doctor quoted by the Chinese media outlet continued to treat patients with pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus after the incident. However, the doctor subsequently developed symptoms of the virus and is now under treatment in isolation.

After the report drew public attention, another medical expert pointed out online on Jan. 29 that all of the eight individuals were doctors and that their chat group conversations had been called into question. An image posted online labelled as a screenshot of the chat group exchanges includes test data suggesting the possibility of SARS, and a comment saying the situation could become serious unless it was handled properly.

The author of the Jan. 29 post went on to say that the new coronavirus had not been identified at the time of the chat, and that the doctors' comments suggesting SARS cannot be called a false alarm. The poster wrote that the accusations against the eight doctors silenced other medical practitioners, leading to the situation that we are seeing now.

Following the public backlash, the Supreme People's Court criticized public security authorities' action in a statement posted on its official social media account on Jan. 28. The statement pointed out that the doctors' chatroom comments cannot be entirely described as fabrications, and that if society had believed the "false rumor," many people would have put on masks and sanitized thoroughly, which would have been welcome in terms of infection prevention. The court also rapped public security authorities, saying that law enforcers should fully consider the nature of information sources.

The move, however, has apparently fallen short of quelling the online backlash against the Chinese establishment for controlling free speech under the pretext of maintaining social stability.

"Regular people get arrested for talking about the truth, and the government is forgiven for telling a lie," one person commented online.

(Japanese original by Keisuke Kawazu, China General Bureau)

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