NOEL KING, HOST:
A Chinese doctor who issued one of the first warnings about the coronavirus outbreak has died from the virus. More than 31,000 people in China are now sick with it. Now the country is trying to build mass quarantine centers, mostly in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged, and officials are asking families to report members who show symptoms so that they can be quarantined. NPR's Emily Feng is on the line from Beijing. Hi, Emily.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: What do you know about these quarantine centers and what they're going to be like?
FENG: They're for people with less severe versions of the virus, but they're essentially gyms, stadiums that a couple hundred beds have been put into. And China needs these because hospitals have totally run out of space. Over the last three days, I've talked to close to two dozen people with family who are either seriously ill or have died because they had the virus or otherwise and could not get care.
KING: Are people willing to do what the authorities say and basically report on family members so that they can be quarantined?
FENG: No, but they're being ordered to do so.
FENG: Yesterday, China's vice premier said that the city was in a state of war and that residents had to report each other. Cadres should go house to house to do inspections, to make sure people were reporting each other. But, of course, these are quarantine centers. So once you send your family member into this place, you can't go visit them, and you don't know when they're going to get better and when you can see them again.
A second concern is people don't know what kind of care their loved ones are going to receive. I talked to a woman in Wuhan named Pan Yifei earlier this week because she'd been trying to get three of her family members beds in hospitals. One of them at least has the virus. She was unsuccessful. So I asked her today if she would consider these quarantine wards. Here's what she said.
PAN YIFEI: (Speaking non-English language).
FENG: She's saying, "I have to admit the conditions in these wards are all right. They give you food and they take your temperature. But I would not call these quarantine wards. They are where you put people so they can die."
So she is definitely not sending her family members there, but other people are so desperate they'll take any kind of care they can get. And one of these people is Dong Bo. He also lives in Wuhan. His father has already died of what he thinks was the virus but can't be sure. His sister now has it, but because of a pre-existing illness, she needs dialysis, and no one will take her because she's sick. So he's now calling everyone to get her into a ward. Here's what he said.
DONG BO: (Speaking non-English language).
FENG: He's saying he's helpless. "We're at the end of the road. I can't bear to watch as all of my loved ones die one by one. I have to do everything I can to save them."
But the problem is local officials have stopped returning his calls, so he doesn't know how he can get his sister into a ward.
KING: OK. And then, Emily, there is this doctor who tried to warn people about the coronavirus outbreak. NPR's reporting that he was only 34 years old. How are people around the country, inside and outside of Wuhan, reacting to this man's death?
FENG: Dr. Li Wenliang - he was an ophthalmologist, and he's considered a hero today. It's been astonishing to see the tributes to him online, offline. It's basically all anyone is talking about in China today. Yesterday, only about 90 minutes after he died, the hashtag #iwantfreedomofspeech began trending on Chinese social media. By sunrise today, all those posts had been taken down.
So other people are now referring to - going to more oblique references to commemorate him. One of them is people posting Luciano Pavarotti's recording of this opera aria called "No One Sleeps Tonight" because millions stayed up all night hoping Dr. Li would pull through. Another song people posted was "Do You Hear The People Sing?" from the musical "Les Miserables," which is about a political uprising in Paris.
So yeah, people are angry. This has been a turning point and a real questioning of the government's legitimacy. But it sparked this huge censorship, so we'll see if this kind of open discussion can continue.
KING: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks so much.
FENG: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.