Zhang Wenhong, the leader of Shanghai’s effort to battle the Wuhan coronavirus, made some waves on Wednesday by suggesting Chinese Communist Party officials should be working on the frontlines against the disease, in keeping with their “oath to put the public welfare first.”
On Thursday the state-run Global Times reported Zhang has indeed “replaced all frontline doctors with Party members and the decision is non-negotiable.”
In face of life and death, Party members must fill frontline medical positions to fight #coronavirus! Zhang Wenhong, leader of the Shanghai Medical Treatment Expert Team, said Wed that he had replaced all frontline doctors with Party members and the decision is non-negotiable. pic.twitter.com/FFRGHe7ZNA
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) January 30, 2020
Zhang said he is optimistic that the Wuhan virus can be controlled without a pandemic breaking out and causing massive loss of life, but only if the infection is contained within China’s Hubei province, which is ground zero for the outbreak. He was equally grim about the consequences of the virus escaping into the wider world and mutating, which would make it much more difficult to track lines of infection and establish effective quarantines.
“We have to be very cautious,” he warned. “If a region suddenly has a number of cases whose source of transmission cannot be identified, or if the region has its own second- and third-generation viruses, with the initial virus having mutated, this would mean the infectious disease has started circulating internally in that region.”
“This would be a very serious thing,” he continued. “If this happened, we would have to declare the failure of the ‘defense campaign’ in that region and move on to the next step: not just focusing on cases imported from Wuhan, but screening any patient with a fever.”
“At present, we can only hear the clock ticking without knowing what time it is,” he memorably remarked about the status of the epidemic during his press conference on Wednesday.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that Zhang was concerned about the enormous workload placed on doctors in Shanghai, so he has ordered them to rest while Communist Party members take shifts for them. The Global Times did not mention that he meant Communist Party members who also have appropriate medical training, not hapless bureaucrats. Zhang himself is a senior Party official.
“We can’t bully those who are more obedient,” Zhang said of the first responders. “So I’ve decided to change the shift. It will all be Party members from now on.”
“I don’t care whether or not you’re willing, you’re all going to step up,” growled Zhang, who sounded “exhausted and frustrated” in the Journal’s estimation.
Exhaustion is a big problem across the coronavirus battlefield, especially in Wuhan itself, where residents have smuggled out video of doctors collapsing from exhaustion and viral infection. Critics of the response from Beijing say it was obvious the hospital system in Wuhan was swiftly overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, but the central leadership waited too long to send in reinforcements.
Zhang mentioned the importance of psychological counseling for at-risk populations, noting that one reason the hospital workload has been so overwhelming is that panicked people who think they have fevers are rushing in to get screened for the Wuhan virus.
However, he also noted that screening is vital, and if the infection grows to the point where lines of transmission can no longer be traced, doctors will have little choice but to treat everyone with a fever as a potential Wuhan virus carrier. The Chinese government has implemented a requirement that pharmacies report every purchase of medicines for dealing with flu-like symptoms, fearing that people self-medicating at home might be reluctant to get tested for the Wuhan virus.
Taiwan News thought Zhang’s comments about getting Party members into the game “deviated from the Chinese Communist Party’s carefully scripted playbook” and interpreted his comment about the Party making good on its oath to “put the interests of the people first and face difficulties whatever the cost” as bitter sarcasm.
“You can mouth Party slogans in ordinary times, and you can join the Party for whatever reason. I’m sorry, but now you must act like true Party members and go forward,” Zhang said during his press conference, a demand that sounds more than a little off-script, although it is always possible the Party will use Zhang to build a propaganda narrative about courageous Communist officials marching selflessly to the front lines of the biological battle.
Chinese media reported on Wednesday that Communist Party chief Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to become fully involved in the virus battle. Military doctors were dispatched to Wuhan earlier this month.
Asia Times on Wednesday saw the outbreak as a serious threat to Xi’s power and the stability of Communist Party rule, citing widespread public displeasure with the slow response and early efforts to cover up the severity of the outbreak. According to the report:
For Xi and the CCP, this a major challenge. During the past seven days, the virus has gone viral on Weibo, the Twitter-like social-media app, with speculation running rife on the government’s handling of the outbreak.
“This is probably the greatest political challenge that [Xi has] faced since taking office in 2012,” Allison Sherlock, a China researcher at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, said. “At the central level, President Xi and his right-hand man, Premier Li Keqiang, I think they understand that the stakes are very high here.
“The mishandling of the virus didn’t just lead to the rapid spread of the outbreak, it also eroded trust in the government. And they’re going to try to do everything in their power to ensure that people start believing in their local officials again,” she told the CNBC television network.
CNN noted that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, nominally the number two leader in China but marginalized into a largely ceremonial role by Xi’s accumulation of authoritarian power, was put in charge of a special commission and dispatched to Wuhan, where he has been filmed touring the city wearing a facemask – but Xi himself is absent, and that absence has been noted by disgruntled Chinese citizens.
“Li has enough guts to go to Wuhan, but not Xi,” observed adjunct professor Willy Lam of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, noting that when the SARS epidemic struck in 2003 Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao made a point of personally visiting outbreak areas. Various China experts who spoke to CNN suspected Xi is more interested in setting up Li as a political fall guy than putting himself on the line to effectively deal with the crisis.
From that perspective, a highly-publicized demand from Shanghai’s chief medical expert for Communist Party members to put themselves on the frontline could be a useful step toward restoring a measure of public faith in officials. It might seem a little embarrassing in the short term, but if it fixes the image of Party leaders rolling up their sleeves and risking their lives to battle the epidemic in the public mind, it could pay long-term political dividends.