Concerns Grow Over Wuhan Doctor Amid Call For Return to Work

virus-censorship.jpg The front page of China's People magazine featuring Ai Fen (left, second from top), director of the Wuhan Central Hospital ER, as it initially appeared (L) and after it was deleted from its website and paper copies were removed from the shelves.
China's People

Whistleblowing Wuhan doctor Ai Fen is currently incommunicado, believed detained after giving media interviews about her initial concerns over the coronavirus, according to an Australian media report.

"Just two weeks ago the head of Emergency at Wuhan Central Hospital went public, saying authorities had stopped her and her colleagues from warning the world," flagship investigative show 60 Minutes Australia reported on Sunday.

"She has now disappeared, her whereabouts unknown," the show reported, also tweeting photos of Ai.

Soon after the show aired, Ai's account on the Twitter-like platform Weibo sent out a single, cryptic post with a photo taken from Wuhan's Jianghan Road.

"A river. A bridge. A road. A clock chime," the post read, the first since March 16, when the account posted to thank everyone for their concern about Ai and to reassure them that she was back at work as usual.

Ai was earlier given a stern reprimand after sending information about the early stages of the outbreak to a group of doctors, she wrote in a now-deleted essay published in China's People (Renwu) magazine.

Titled "The one who supplied the whistle," the article described how Ai had been silenced by her bosses after she took a photo of a patient's test results and circled the words "SARS coronavirus" in red.

She alerted colleagues to several cases of the virus, and eight of them were summoned by police for sharing the information. Among them was opthalmologist Li Wenliang who later died of COVID-19.

RFA was unable to verify Ai's whereabouts independently. Detainees in police or other official custody have been known to have their social media accounts updated, either by themselves acting under orders from the authorities, or after police gain access to their devices.

Growing concern

Concern over Ai's whereabouts is growing as the lockdown of Wuhan ended and Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the eastern province of Zhejiang to call on people to return to work.

New cases are still being reported, including asymptomatic cases such as the one reported Monday by health authorities in Pingdingshan in central Henan province.

Hubei resident Feng Jianbin said many people worried about the continued spread of COVID-19 by people with no symptoms.

"Asymptomatic carriers, as they're called, are defined by the government, who just keep on redefining the parameters and then say that there are no confirmed cases," Feng said. "The aim is mainly to cover up the reality."

"The day before yesterday there was a case like this in Jingmen city, who had traveled through Wuhan and stayed there for two days," he said. "That was two-and-a-half months ago, and they've only just discovered him, which is terrifying."

News website Caixin called on health officials to release official figures for the number of asymptomatic cases, who are not treated by the authorities as confirmed COVID-19 cases, even if they test positive for the virus.

On Sunday, Xi toured private companies in Zhejiang's Ningbo city, pledging government help for small and medium-sized enterprises worst-hit by the epidemic.

Xi visited a pier in Ningbo-Zhoushan Port and an industrial park for auto parts and molds in Ningbo’s Beilun district to learn about the resumption of work and production among businesses there, the state-run China Daily reported.

Xi said public health concerns needed to be balanced with the need to resume production, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Problems remain

Financial analyst He Jiangbing said there are a number of problems with getting China back to work, however.

"Schools haven't resumed yet ... many countries haven't yet opened their borders to China, and other places in China are still discriminating against people from Hubei," He said.

"Also, the impact [of the virus] on the rest of the world has led to orders being canceled."

Public attractions including major buildings in Shanghai remain closed, with authorities citing "epidemic prevention."

Wuhan, at the epicenter of the epidemic for more than two months, was gradually reopening for business Monday as the lockdown began to ease.

Shops and other businesses began reopening, albeit with prominent signs warning customers to keep up social distancing and supplies of hand sanitizer aplenty.

Business owners and shoppers told the Associated Press that many people were still too afraid to venture out, however.

Restrictions on the rest of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, were lifted March 23, but travel restrictions will remain on Wuhan until April 8.

The lockdown eventually covered some 800 million people, more than half of China's population.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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