Coronavirus infections surpass 1,900 as China appoints top-level team to manage crisis

28-Jan-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

China’s Communist Party has set up a leading group to manage the coronavirus epidemic, state media reported on Saturday.

The decision was made at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee the party’s top leadership tier chaired by President Xi Jinping, state broadcaster CCTV said.

The group would be set up by the party’s Central Committee and be directed by the Standing Committee, the report said.

The news was announced on Saturday as three doctors in Beijing were reported to have been infected with the coronavirus, according to state-run China National Radio. Among the three confirmed cases, which were diagnosed on Tuesday and Saturday, two had returned from Wuhan and the third did not go to the city but sat next to a doctor back from Wuhan in a meeting in Beijing.

The number of virus infections in mainland China now stands at almost 2,000 and the death toll at 56.

Analysts said that by creating the leading group under the Standing Committee the party’s leaders would be able to mobilise all available resources to contain the outbreak. It would also send a clear signal to provincial officials of the severity of the situation and force them to act swiftly on any instructions.

Lower ranking party members are often reluctant to act until ordered to do so, and there have been calls for punishments to be handed down to those who may have been slow to respond in the first days of the coronavirus outbreak.

Xi said at the meeting that people from different ethnic groups and sectors should work together to support efforts to contain the spread of the deadly virus. The country was facing a “grave situation”, he said, and preventing further infections had to be the priority.

“Party committees and governments at different levels have to make proper plans to contain the virus under the guidance of the Central Committee,” he was quoted as saying.

“Hubei province has to regard virus prevention work as the most important task, and enforce stricter measures to stop the virus from spreading inside the province and spilling out into other areas. Isolation treatment should be provided for all infected patients”.

The meeting also ordered authorities at all levels to ensure sufficient supplies to Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, which is the epicentre of the outbreak.

Proper control measures must also be adopted to monitor the movement of people in the city, the CCTV report said.

Markets selling agricultural produce should be subjected to more inspections, the trade in wild animals should be banned, and people should avoid gathering in large groups and taking part in mass activities.

Accurate information about the outbreak must be released to the public in a timely manner, the report said, adding that the World Health Organization, and authorities in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan must also be kept fully up to date on the developments.

Efforts to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus should also be stepped up, it said.

The outbreak began in Wuhan in December and has since spread across mainland China, to Hong Kong and Macau, and onwards to the United States, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, France and elsewhere.

Qinghai province, in the northwest of China, confirmed its first case on Saturday, leaving the Tibet autonomous region as the only major administrative area on the mainland still free of infection.

The southern region of Guangxi confirmed two new cases on Saturday, one of them a two-year-old girl the youngest victim so far who travelled from Wuhan to Hechi in Guangxi on Wednesday.

As part of the emergency measures, a travel ban has been imposed on most of Hubei, locking down tens of millions of people. Flights, trains, buses and ferries connecting Wuhan to other cities in Hubei have been suspended.

Other parts of China have also introduced contingency plans. In Shanghai, cinemas were ordered to close during the Lunar New Year holiday which runs though to Thursday while the city’s civil affairs bureau said on Saturday it had postponed all marriages scheduled to take place at the city’s 17 municipal and district-level registration centres. It advised couples that are planning their nuptials not to register a date before February 14.

In Beijing, the authorities went still further, banning all bus services within the city from Sunday, and all outbound tours from the city from Monday, Beijing Youth Daily reported.

The China Association of Travel Services, meanwhile, said on Saturday night that travel agencies across the country had suspended all group tours and the sale of air tickets and hotel packages.

The announcement could affect millions of travellers moving in and out of Beijing over the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, a time when domestic tourists traditionally flock to the capital to visit historical sites like Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall of China.

The last time China faced such a health crisis was in 2002, when Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) swept across the nation and spread overseas. The virus infected more than 8,000 people and killed 774 worldwide.

Beijing was blamed at the time for covering up the outbreak. And although it later said it was committed to containing the crisis, it still did not go as far as to set up a leading group under the Politburo Standing Committee as it did on Saturday.

Johnny Lau, a Hong Kong-based current affairs commentator, said handing the management of the crisis to such a top-level group meant that prevention and containment measures were likely to happen more quickly.

“It means they are consolidating efforts and resources to solve the crisis, and pay the price needed to control the spread of the virus,” he said.

But the outbreak reflected a long-standing problem of lower-ranking officials failing to take any initiative, even when the public was put at huge risk, he said.

“There is a long-term problem with officials thinking they are doing fine as long as they obey directions from the top leadership.”

Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian, said the leading group was set up because the leadership was coming under growing pressure.

“Under China’s political system, things don’t go forward until they are approved by Xi,” he said.

“This is potentially very dangerous, because if Xi has a misjudgment, then a series of blunders will follow.

“Chinese officials have long suffered from only saying positive things [to the boss] and hiding negative information, which could delay the proper handling of the [coronavirus] outbreak.”


Category: China

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