On the deadliest day of the coronavirus outbreak so far, the Chinese government made a rare admission of failure, acknowledging “shortcomings and deficiencies” in its response to the epidemic.
Sixty-five new deaths were confirmed on Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 427, with infections globally now passing 20,000 cases. Hong Kong became the second place outside mainland China to report a death, following the death of a man in the Philippines on Monday.
Beijing has come under growing pressure from its own citizens over its delayed response to the outbreak, which was first reported in early December. The government did not issue an official announcement about the outbreak until January 19, when three people had already died.
Now the government appears willing to admit that it failed.
"In response to the shortcomings and deficiencies, we must improve our national emergency management system and improve our abilities in handling urgent and dangerous tasks," the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the country's top leadership, said in a statement after it met late on Monday night.
The committee also said it would punish those officials responsible for the failure to deal with the crisis earlier. And it promised a crackdown on illegal wild animal markets such as the one in Wuhan that many have indicated as the source of the outbreak — though this remains unclear.
Chinese citizens have been unusually vocal in their criticism of the government’s failure to adequately deal with this crisis. Citizens have been posting negative comments and videos to social media sites to counteract what they perceive as a lack of information coming from the central government.
However, the government has also moved to silence those seeking to raise the alarm. In late December, Li Wenliang, a doctor on the frontline of treating the outbreak, attempted to warn others about the growing crisis in a private group on the WeChat platform. But he was arrested and warned to keep quiet.
The 34-year-old subsequently contracted the new coronavirus and remains in an intensive care ward in Wuhan.
Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the committee meeting on Monday, and criticized the “bureaucratism and the practice of formalities for formalities' sake” that may have delayed the response to the outbreak, state media reported.
The comments may be a response to claims by some Wuhan residents that they couldn’t report cases because they were waiting for the central government to give them permission to do so.
But Xi’s own policies have exacerbated the situation. Under Xi, power has been consolidated centrally in Beijing and regional officials, fearing retribution from the central government, have become increasingly unwilling to take any action that could be seen as overstepping.
Xi’s comments come as China is facing increasing pressure from abroad to limit the spread of the virus outside their borders, as more and more countries bar anyone who has recently visited China from entering their countries.
One of those is Macau, the world’s biggest gambling hubs, which announced Tuesday that it would temporarily close down all the casinos in the region. The gambling mecca turns over $37.6 billion a year, three times as much as Las Vegas, and employs 57,000 people in its casinos.
Authorities said the closure would last for two weeks, but it could be extended after the city reported its tenth coronavirus case on Tuesday. A 29-year-old female hotel worker contracted the virus at a Lunar New Year gathering, suggesting the virus is spreading within the city.
Cover: A convention center that has been converted into a temporary hospital in Wuhan province, China. (Chinatopix via AP)