Huanggang, a city near Wuhan that implemented one of the first lockdowns against the new strain of coronavirus identified in China this month, reportedly fired the head of its health commission on Thursday, the first local official stripped of his title.
The ouster follows a week of growing tensions between Beijing and local officials in and around Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, as Communist Party leaders and state media outlets attempt to redirect public outrage away from dictator Xi Jinping and towards dispensible local officials.
Subtle signs of the lack of confidence began Sunday when Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, asked the public for an apology over the secretive government response to the viral outbreak but blamed higher-ranking federal officials for withholding key information too long, saying he did not have authority to reveal public health data without approval from the Party.
Zhou offered to resign during that press conference, but as of press time remains in power. The same cannot be said for Tang Zhihong, the head of Huanggang’s health commission. The South China Morning Post, citing the local Communist Party committee, said that the decision from above to remove Tang followed a painful interview broadcast on state media in which Tang was unable to tell reporters how many open beds the city had allocated for potentially infected patients or if the city had the resources to test all those who sought to know if they were carrying the new coronavirus.
Huanggang is a city in Hubei province about an hour and a half from Wuhan. While its population is about 6 million people, slightly smaller than New York City, it is dwarfed by the 11 million living in Wuhan. Locals often commute to work from Huanggang to Wuhan. The Morning Post noted that, at 324 confirmed cases as of Thursday, Huanggang has been more directly affected by the outbreak than any other city except Wuhan.
Tang’s reported inability to say if Huanggang had enough test kits available to document coronavirus cases follows a week in which a growing number of reports from anonymous sources on the ground in Hubei province suggested that the Communist Party is deliberately refusing to test individuals who show clear signs of the coronavirus, thus deflating the total number of cases and making the outbreak appear less severe. Chinese government-controlled media revealed that Wuhan does not have enough testing kits openly, but insider reports from the city indicate that hospitals are turning people away unless they have government permission for a coronavirus test, likely resulting in thousands of unidentified cases.
As of Thursday, the Chinese government and the World Health Organization (WHO) have documented 8,243 cases of the new coronavirus and 171 deaths, the latter all in China. Cases of the virus have officially affected every province of China and neighboring countries such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Outside of Asia, Italy, France, Canada, and the United States have documented cases, among others.
The virus causes several respiratory symptoms common to influenza and other viral infections, including fevers, coughing, difficulty breathing, and body aches. The virus appears to rapidly trigger pneumonia, endangering the lives of many patients. It belongs to the same category of virus as the one responsible for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 800 people in 2003 and also originated in China.
Chinese authorities notified the WHO on December 31 that they had identified a viral infection of unknown origin. On January 1, Wuhan officials shut down a wild game and seafood market believed to be where a person first ingested the virus, likely through wild meat. It took Chinese officials another 20 days to tell the world that they had evidence of a growing outbreak and Beijing only shared the new viral genome sequence on January 20. The weekend before, locals reported that the government staged a banquet for 130,000 people; sharing food in contained spaces increases the virus’s ability to spread.
Mayor Zhou expressed frustration with this secrecy on Sunday, blaming the Communist Party for not allowing him to be open about the situation.
“On one hand, we did not reveal [information] in time; on the other, we did not use effective information to improve our work to a satisfactory level,” Zhou said. “Regarding the untimely disclosure, [I] hope everyone can understand. [Coronavirus] is a contagious disease. Contagious diseases have relevant law and information needs to be disclosed according to law.”
The Global Times, a government newspaper, called Zhou’s press conference a “disaster,” couching it in reporting on the alleged social media response to his remarks. Communist Party officials control and censor all social media, stifling any dissent they do not specifically choose to leave public. The newspaper also condemned Wuhan officials specifically for failing to address the crisis appropriately, not mentioning high-level officials in Beijing.
“It has to be pointed out that it is very regrettable that the city failed to take necessary emergency measures to prevent that many people from traveling across the country as this makes it especially difficult for the country to prevent and control the epidemic,” the Times asserted. “The city should face the fact that the public is strongly dissatisfied with this.”
The Global Times also published an interview on Wednesday bizarrely applauding eight individuals arrested for posting about the virus on social media before January 20. The Wuhan police department announced shortly after the government admitted that the virus existed that they had “handled” eight cases of people spreading “rumors” on social media, and warned that anyone continuing to discuss the virus online would face legal repercussions.
After global outrage grew against the arrests, Beijing’s Supreme People’s Court condemned them, followed by Zeng Guang, an epidemiologist at the top disease control center in Beijing.
“In an exclusive interview with Global Times’ Editor-in-chief Hu Xijin, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at the CCDC, said those eight residents should be highly regarded as they turned out to be correct about the viral outbreak, even though the information they spread ‘lacked scientific evidence,'” the newspaper relayed.
“In retrospect, we should highly praise them. They were wise before the outbreak,” Zeng reportedly said.