BEIJING: In February, China’s leader Xi Jinping declared himself the “supreme commander” in a war against the new coronavirus. But the public face of China’s efforts to contain the outbreak is not Xi: it is an 83-year-old, weight-lifting doctor.
Dr. Zhong Nanshan has long been a household name in China. The pulmonologist holds no formal office — but over the past three months has become the face of China’s virus containment efforts, cutting through public confusion and online disinformation about SARS-CoV-2.
In China, “there is a lot of a sense of mistrust and in everything, just a kind of societal desperation,” said Maria Repnikova, a scholar of global communications at Georgia State University.
Similar scientific figureheads have emerged in other countries now battling their own outbreaks of COVID-19. In Germany, virologist Dr. Christian Drosten, whose podcast about the new coronavirus has made him a public celebrity. In Hong Kong, infectious disease specialist Dr. Gabriel Leung is a regular fixture on mainstream news outlets.
“These figures have kind of come to represent something that’s honorable, sincere, scientific and unbiased,” said Repnikova.
Dr. Zhong also draws comparisons to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent adviser to the federal government on its COVID-19 containment efforts. Like Fauci, Zhong, who is a former track and field star, is a fitness buff – and is is widely seen as a reliable source of information in contrast to the some government figures.
“There’s a parallel in both countries in that manner,” said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, a vice president of global health at Emory University, who worked alongside Zhong in the aftermath of the 2003 SARS epidemic. “In many instances, politics can play a role that’s helpful by mobilizing resources and helping the public health effort in a very positive way. But it also can be a hindrance.”
On January 20, it was Zhong who confirmed in a state television interview that the new coronavirus could spread from person to person, warning the public that the virus may be highly contagious.
The revelation was a critical piece of information local bureaucrats and public health officials denied for weeks, citing lack of evidence. That and other cover-up measures delayed China’s efforts to contain COVID-19 for at least a month after health authorities became aware of a mysterious new virus.
When Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistle-blowing doctor, later died himself of the coronavirus, the Chinese government launched an investigation into why he had been first reprimanded by local police for warning other doctors about a strange kind of pneumonia. They concluded that authorities in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus began, acted “inadequately” when they warned Dr Li to stay silent. For many in China, that was not enough of an apology.
Instead, it was Zhong Nanshan who channeled public grief when he openly mourned Li’s death in a taped interview with Reuters. “He’s the hero of China,” said Zhong, choking back tears, “I’m so proud of him, he told the truth, back in December.”