Chinese officials confirmed the death toll of a mystery coronavirus spreading from central China doubled to six people from Monday into Tuesday, insisting that Beijing is prepared to screen potential carriers as Asia prepares for Lunar New Year, one of the continent’s biggest travel days.
The coronavirus, described as “novel” as scientists had not yet identified its genome when people first began getting sick, appears to have sprung from a seafood market in Wuhan, a metropolis in central China. The greater Wuhan area is home to 19 million people. The virus causes severe pneumonia in carriers; Chinese media have insisted there is “no need to panic” as, given the hundreds of documented cases, the death toll appears to be low.
Official Chinese government statements also previously emphasized that no proof existed that the virus could spread from person to person, instead contending that only those exposed to the infected food could get sick. By Tuesday, China had identified over a dozen health workers infected with the virus, suggesting a high likelihood of person-to-person transmission.
According to Reuters, China’s National Health Commission confirmed 291 cases by the end of Monday, including 15 health workers treating the affected. Authorities had confirmed 217 cases in their first Monday update. While Communist Party authorities initially said most cases were isolated within the Wuhan area, Monday’s tally included 14 cases in Guangdong, the southern province that borders Hong Kong, as well as five in Beijing, five in eastern Zhejiang, two in Tianjin, and two in Shanghai.
Thailand, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have also confirmed cases of the virus after China shared genome information with the World Health Organization, which allows doctors to identify which virus is causing illness in a person. Doctors in the Philippines are testing a suspected case, Reuters noted.
Chinese state propaganda outlets have published a barrage of articles insisting that Beijing is taking the virus seriously and being transparent about its spread – in contrast to the 2002 Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak that killed nearly 800 people, largely because China delayed sharing information with the world. The SARS culprit was also a coronavirus, one Beijing has claimed to be deadlier than the one responsible for the Wuhan disease.
Chinese dictator Xi Jinping appears concerned with a repeat of the SARS disaster – which occurred during the tenure of predecessor Jiang Zemin, the architect of the Tiananmen Square massacre – and has reportedly ordered senior Communist Party members to threaten health officials against secrecy in handling the Wuhan virus.
“Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people,” a commentary by the official social media account of Beijing’s legal affairs commission posted on Monday read, according to the South China Morning Post. “Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”
In Wuhan itself, the Global Times propaganda outlet reported that officials would implement close screening of individuals at health clinics and expand resources for testing for the virus. While insisting China was ready to contain it, the same newspaper admitted on Monday that many of China’s hospitals do not have the equipment necessary to test for this specific coronavirus. Wuhan officials also announced the establishment of a specialized headquarters to respond to the coronavirus by organizing teams to address the needs of each patient as they are contained. The team will also work to limit public assemblies in Wuhan and shut down markets where merchants sell wild game or seafood.
On the national level, Premier Li Keqiang reportedly held a State Council executive meeting Monday to handle the country’s response to the virus in which, according to the People’s Daily, “it was underlined … that disease control is a matter of life and health for the people.” The People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.
“All prevention and control measures needed must be duly delivered, and inter-agency efforts must be enhanced to ensure the earliest possible detection, reporting, quarantine, and treatment of the disease, and to keep the fatality rate at the minimal possible level. Precautions in hospitals should be strengthened,” Li reportedly told Party officials. “The government should make timely updates about the disease and be highly responsive to public concerns to shape an objective and rational public attitude toward the disease.”
The newspaper also informed that Xi Jinping was personally overseeing the emergency response to the virus, particularly in monitoring Lunar New Year travelers.
“President Xi Jinping urged resolute efforts on Monday to contain the spread of pneumonia cases caused by a new strain of coronavirus as cases of the contagion rose to 224, all but six of them confirmed, as of 8 pm on Monday,” the People’s Daily claimed. “All-out efforts must be made in the prevention and control of the contagion, Xi said, as he called for closer attention to related work.”
Among the demands Xi allegedly made of his national health agency was a “deepening of international cooperation” to ensure the safe containment of individuals who test positive for the disease.
One hurdle to “international cooperation” is Beijing’s refusal to accept the existence of neighboring countries like Taiwan. In his meeting with senior leaders, Li Keqiang reportedly urged “Taiwan province” to cooperating with China to contain the virus; Taiwan is a sovereign state that has never been governed by the People’s Republic of China.