A woman whose father died of coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan has become the fourth person to sue the authorities over their public health response, RFA has learned.
Zhao Lei, whose father died on Feb. 3 while awaiting evaluation for his coronavirus symptoms in an emergency room, is seeking two million yuan in compensation and an official apology from the governor of Hubei province, and the mayor of its provincial capital, Wuhan.
In the lawsuit, she alleges that her father was denied urgent treatment as a result of an official cover-up of the seriousness of the epidemic.
Hong Kong had already begun isolating fever patients from Wuhan by early January, with experts in the city warning that Wuhan was likely seeing a "super-spreading event" worthy of great caution.
But Chinese health officials and the World Health Organization (WHO) continued to repeat the claim that there was "no evidence" that the new virus was transmissible between people until human-to-human transmission was announced by National Health Commission vice-minister Li Bin on Jan. 22.
"The government concealed the fact that the coronavirus can be transmitted between people, which meant that everyone in Wuhan, including our family, carried on buying stuff, eating celebratory meals for Lunar New Year and having dinner together [in restaurants]," Zhao told RFA on Wednesday.
"He had pneumonia and died in the emergency room five days after getting sick, but it said 'sudden death' on his death certificate," she said.
Zhao said her father had begun showing symptoms including a fever on Jan. 30, and was taken to Wuhan Zhongshan Hospital, where he died while waiting to be seen by a doctor.
Later testing showed him to be infected with coronavirus. Zhao herself was also infected, and is still recovering from the illness.
She cited the warnings and accusations of "rumor-mongering" meted out to whistle-blowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang and his colleagues. Li later went on to die of coronavirus and be hailed as a national hero.
"Why did the government try to cover this up at first?" Zhao said. "If they hadn't done that, my father wouldn't have died of it."
"That's why I'm suing the municipal authorities and the provincial government, who I think should make a formal response," she said.
Rights activist Yang Zhanqing, who helped Zhao with her lawsuit, said he had sent the 14-page lawsuit to the Wuhan Intermediate People's Court, and is now waiting for a response from the court.
"This is the fourth such case ... the third plaintiff also lost her father because of the virus, because they weren't given the right information," Yang said.
"So they went out to New Year's dinners as if everything was OK, then they got a fever, and ended up in the hospital," Yang said of the two cases.
Zhao said she blames what she says was a deliberate cover-up that deprived people of the knowledge they needed to protect themselves in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.
Her lawsuit also calls for official investigations into the actions of municipal and provincial officials in the early weeks of the pandemic, and for appropriate action to be taken against those responsible.
Warned off by threats
Yang said many more families would like to take similar action, but have been warned off by threats from local officials.
"A lot of victims' families have been subjected to threats to a greater or lesser degree, and some who had intended to sue are now unable to," Yang said.
He said that while the people who are filing lawsuits have scant hope of victory, they are hoping to focus public attention on the plight of victims and their families.
A Wuhan resident surnamed Wang who is familiar with another plaintiff, Zhang Hai, said his family and friends are all being placed under huge pressure by the authorities not to speak out about his case.
"Zhang Hai was the first to sue, and the court wouldn't take the case," Wang said. "They basically make up the law as they go along and then tear it up when it suits them."
Zhang told RFA he hasn't given up, and had filed a second complaint with the Hubei High People's Court and the provincial prosecutor, but that it too was rejected over claims he had failed to explain his argument adequately.
"Was this tragedy a natural or a man-made disaster?" Zhang said in a brief comment to RFA's Cantonese Service on Wednesday.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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