Sometimes truth is the most powerful antiviral.
Posted May 23, 2020
Amid vital efforts to develop better measures to reduce SARS-CoV-2 infection, treat patients suffering from COVID-19, and develop a vaccine against the virus, we should not forget one of the most important but often unheralded antivirals: the truth. If we do not know what is really happening, it becomes difficult or impossible to respond and plan effectively to the pandemic.
One crucial ingredient in the recipe for an accurate and widely shared understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic is individuals prepared to speak the truth, even when they stand to suffer for doing so. One of the surest prescriptions for disaster is to surround decision-makers with sycophants who create echo chambers.
Hence it is vital that we pause from time to time and recognize individuals who speak the truth and in some cases suffer mightily for doing so. Simply saying the truth may sound simple, but many people cannot see the truth, will not speak it when they see it, or bow to pressure when they are told to cease doing so.
One such person was the Chinese physician Li Wenliang. An opthalmologist, when Li became aware that a patient in his city had been diagnosed with what appeared to be a novel coronavirus, he shared the information with his colleagues. Summoned by his superiors and made to sign a statement that accused him of leaking unauthorized information, he was later labeled a "rumor monger."
Later, when it became clear that Li was right, he was exonerated, and officials even admitted that it would have been better for everyone if his warnings had been heeded. Li himself later said, “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference.”
Yet Li himself eventually contracted the virus, likely while caring for an infected patient. As soon as he fell ill, he moved into a hotel, in an effort to protect his pregnant wife and their son from contracting the disease. He died the next month. Of Li's courage in speaking out in the face of threats, Dr. Tom Inglesby at Johns Hopkins University wrote:
One of the world's most important warning systems for a deadly new outbreak is a doctor's or nurse's recognition that some new disease is emerging and then sounding the alarm. It takes intelligence and courage to step up and say something like that, even in the best of circumstances. Rising doctors and nurses should remember Dr. Li’s name for doing the right and brave thing for his community and the world, and should be encouraged to do the same if they are ever in a moment to make that kind of difference in the world.
It is a shame when truth-tellers such as Li lose their lives, but their sacrifices should only enhance our appreciation for the preciousness of truth and our determination to keep their stories alive in memory. The outcome of the battle against SARS CoV-2 is still uncertain, but if we are to prevail, each of us must preserve and promote one of our most precious resources: the truth.