Chinese Coronavirus Whistleblower: ‘The Dog It Was That Died’

Once again in China, during an epidemic, it is the man who was accused of spreading false rumours, who died.

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Dr Li Wenliang, the Chinese ophthalmologist who alerted the world to the menace of coronavirus, died of the infection.
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Its lockdown on a cold day in the Shimla hills. There’s not a soul in sight. No construction workers at the house that threatens to take away half the view from my porch, no tourists blaring loud music or littering the hill with plastic, not even the villager walking down the slope with his umbrella hooked on his shoulder.

Only the mountains rise above the empty silence, only the clouds move at their own pace. Far away, towards Kulu, the snows rest in eternal peace. Close below my window the apricot blossoms are out and the first plum blossoms are now showing their blushing face. The bees are busy; the daffodils smile undisturbed.

A pair of turquoise birds have found a favourite perch on the leafless branches of the apple tree. Nature is proud and unconquered and man is humbled, huddling inside, hiding behind masks from an unseen family, washing hands bloodied with the guilt of over-reach, the guilt of playing God.

Only an opthalmologist, a man who knew all about seeing things, Dr Li Wenliang of Wuhan saw it coming.

How Dr Li Had ‘Lifted the Veil’ of Secrecy in China

However, like many a wise man before his time, he was denounced and in a manner of speaking, burnt at the stake. But it’s the scourge that made the whistleblower its target; the hooded man with the scythe got him, and moved on unhindered, spreading devastation in every direction.

Thoughts of Dr Li take me to the bookshelf. Ultimately, I find it: a fragile old edition of The Painted Veil, Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel that I last read in college.

At one level, the connection is at best tenuous: the book is about a doctor who ventures willingly into the heart of an epidemic in China and dies.

But then Maugham is difficult to put down; he weaves a relentless, insidious web of immortal characters, psychological insights and unforgettable settings.

Maugham patently disregards Shelley’s advice to “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life…” He sets his story in China, the China of “peasants in faded blue and huge hats on their way to the market and now a woman, old or young, tottering along on her bound heat…” A deadly cholera epidemic is raging in the interior. Maugham’s central character, the restrained and sensitive Dr. Walter Fane deliberately walks into this epidemic, taking along his young wife, Kitty who presumes she is being punished for her infidelity.

Frailties and Nobility of Human Character During a Pandemic

As the couple oscillate in their private hell, Maugham exposes both the frailties as well as the nobility of human character in the face of death and disease. Fane is on a suicidal mission, almost wishing death unto himself.

He despises himself for loving Kitty for what she was not, which he discovered only when the painted veil lifted. In the end he dies as much of cholera as of a broken heart.

Just before he dies he tells his wife: “The dog it was that died.”

She is unable to understand the meaning and Maugham only hints that this is the last line of Goldsmith’s Elegy. In the pre-internet world, this line—the key to the novel—drove me to distraction for weeks until Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog was discovered in an anthology’.

The poem tells of a friendship between a dog and a saintly man: the dog suddenly goes mad and bites the man. The townspeople fear that the man would surely die; instead, it is the man who recovers and the dog who dies. In Maugham’s novel too, Fane is thought to be bringing his wife to death, but it is he who dies and she lives on.

And now, once again in China, during an epidemic, it is the man who was accused of spreading false rumours, the doctor who dared to see too much, who died. Heroes die in any good tragedy.

(Navtej Singh Sarna is an author-columnist, diplomat and former Indian Ambassador to the United States of America. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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