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Chinese President's early involvement in virus outbreak raises questions

AP
Published Feb 16, 2020, 3:23 pm IST
Updated Feb 16, 2020, 3:23 pm IST
China’s National Health Commission on Sunday reported a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day
Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, who was the whistleblower of the NCOV-19. AFP Photo
 Chinese students and their supporters hold a memorial for Dr Li Wenliang, who was the whistleblower of the NCOV-19. AFP Photo

Beijing: A recent speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping that has been published by state media indicates for the first time that he was leading the response to a new virus outbreak from early on in the crisis.

The publication of the Feb. 3 speech was an apparent attempt to demonstrate that the Communist Party leadership acted decisively from the beginning, but also opens Xi up to criticism over why the public was not alerted sooner.

 

In the speech, Xi said he gave instructions on fighting the virus on Jan. 7 and ordered the shutdown of cities that began on Jan. 23 at the epicenter of the outbreak. His remarks were published by state media late Saturday.

“On Jan. 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people,” he told a meeting of the party’s standing committee, its top body.

China’s National Health Commission on Sunday reported a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day. There were 2,009 new cases in mainland China, bringing the total to 68,500.

 

The mortality rate remained stable with 142 new deaths, the commission said, raising the death toll from COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus, to 1,665. Another 9,419 people have recovered and been discharged from hospitals.

Four people have died outside of mainland China, with the most recent fatalities in France and Japan last week.

About 400 Americans on a quarantined cruise ship in Japan were awaiting charter flights home, as Japan announced another 70 infections had been confirmed on the vessel. Canada and Hong Kong said they were planning similar flights.

 

Xi’s role was muted in the early days of the epidemic, which has grown into one of the biggest political challenges of his seven-year tenure.

The disclosure of his speech indicates top leaders knew about the outbreak’s potential severity weeks before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

Trust in the government’s approach to outbreaks remains fractured after the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003, which was covered up for months.

 

The outbreak began in December in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei, which has the bulk of infections and deaths. On Jan. 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation, since expanded to other cities with a combined population of more than 60 million.

Authorities in Hubei and Wuhan faced public fury over their initial handling of the epidemic. The anger reached a peak earlier this month following the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who was reprimanded by local police for trying to spread a warning about the virus. He ended up dying of the disease himself.

 

In apparent response, the Communist Party’s top officials in Hubei and Wuhan were dismissed and replaced last week.

Even as authorities have pledged transparency through the current outbreak, citizen journalists who challenged the official narrative with video reports from Wuhan have disappeared and are believed to be detained.

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