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Meet Dr. Zhong Nanshan, The Public Face Of The COVID-19 Fight In China


China's leader Xi Jinping declared himself the supreme commander in a war against the coronavirus. But the public face of China's efforts to contain an outbreak is not Xi. It's an 83-year-old weightlifting doctor. NPR Beijing correspondent Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Dr. Zhong Nanshan is a household name in China today. The pulmonologist holds no formal office but, over the past three months, has become the face of China's virus containment efforts.


ZHONG NANSHAN: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: It was Dr. Zhong who was allowed to confirm January 20 the new coronavirus could spread from person to person, meaning it was 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 containment of COVID-19 for at least a month.

MARIA REPNIKOVA: I think there is a lot of - a sense of mistrust in everything, just kind of societal desperation. So these figures have kind of come to represent something that's honorable and sincere and scientific and unbiased.

FENG: Maria Repnikova is a scholar of global communications at Georgia State University. She says this is happening in both the U.S. and China.

REPNIKOVA: We see this role of the doctor and, you know, Dr. Fauci having, in some ways, a similar kind of visibility and so much trust that the public is placing in him, so much kind of reverence and the idea of gratitude towards the doctor versus the political system.

REPNIKOVA: She's talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S. and a prominent adviser behind COVID-19 containment efforts. Like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Zhong - who is a former track and field star - is a fitness buff. And like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Zhong is widely seen as a reliable source of information in contrast to their governments.


ZHONG: He's the hero of China.

FENG: When Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistleblowing doctor, later died himself of the coronavirus, it was Zhong Nanshan that channeled that public grief when he openly cried in a taped interview with Reuters.


ZHONG: I'm so proud of him. He told people the truth.

FENG: The COVID-19 outbreak is not Dr. Zhong's first time battling a deadly respiratory disease. He made his name during the 2003 SARS outbreak, when he developed a controversial steroid treatment that cured many SARS patients but left some with debilitating bone issues.

Dr. Sian Griffiths, now an emeritus professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, remembers working with Dr. Zhong Nanshan in 2003.

SIAN GRIFFITHS: Oh, he was such a nice person. He was charming. He was charming, and he was always courteous and polite and listened. And he was very authoritative.

FENG: Dr. Griffiths says the public celebrity of scientists in this pandemic is indicative of how central empirical research is behind the response.

GRIFFITHS: This time around, it's been much more collaborative, much more universal, much more global. Various groups across the world are able to work on the organism. They're able to work on the vaccines and on the treatments and to share their responses really quickly.

FENG: But even Zhong Nanshan, with his impeccable scientific credentials, cannot avoid being politicized by China's propaganda machine.


ZHONG: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: At a state press conference in February, Dr. Zhong said although the virus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, it may not have originated there. His comments are now widely used to support a popular state disinformation campaign that the U.S. military brought the virus to China. Dr. Zhong did not respond to NPR's requests for comment.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.


Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.