Xi's early involvement in virus outbreak raises questions

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Xi's early involvement in virus outbreak raises questions

Sunday, February 16, 2020

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BEIJING, China (AP) — 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 February 3 speech was an apparent attempt to demonstrate that the Communist Party leadership had 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 January 7 and ordered the shutdown that began on January 23 of cities at the epicentre of the outbreak. His remarks were published by state media late Saturday.

“On January 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," Xi told a meeting of the party's standing committee, its top body.

The number of new cases in mainland China fell for a third straight day, China's National Health Commission reported Sunday. The 2,009 new cases in the previous 24-hour period brought the total to 68,500.

Commission spokesman Mi Feng said the percentage of severe cases has dropped to 7.2 per cent of the total from a peak of 15.9 per cent on January 27. The proportion is higher in Wuhan, the Hubei city where the outbreak started, but has fallen to 21.6 per cent from a peak of 32.4 per cent on January 28.

“The national efforts against the epidemic have shown results," Mi said at the commission's daily media briefing.

Taiwan on Sunday reported its first death from the virus, the fifth fatality outside of mainland China. The island also confirmed two new cases, raising its total to 20.

Taiwan's Central News Agency reported that the person who died was a male in his 60s living in central Taiwan. The man had no recent overseas travel history and no known contact with virus patients, CNA said, citing Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung.

China reported 142 more deaths, almost all in Hubei, raising the mainland China death toll to 1,665. Another 9,419 people have recovered from COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus, and have been discharged from hospitals.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened an experts meeting to discuss measures to contain the virus in his country, where one person has died and more than a dozen cases emerged in the past few days without any obvious link to China.

“The situation surrounding this virus is changing by the minute,” Abe said.

Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato said the country is “entering into a phase that is different from before,” requiring new steps to stop the virus from spreading further.

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 Diamond Princess. Canada, Hong Kong and Italy said they were planning similar flights.

Japan now has 412 confirmed cases, including 355 from the cruise ship, and one death from the virus.

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.

Zhang Lifan, a commentator in Beijing, said it's not clear why the speech was published now. One message could be that local authorities should take responsibility for failing to take effective measures after Xi gave instructions in early January. Alternatively, it may mean that Xi, as the top leader, is willing to take responsibility because he was aware of the situation, Zhang said.

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


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