In Beijing, the Politburo Standing Committee — the Communist Party’s top body, headed by President Xi Jinping — has taken direct control of the response. Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Wuhan Monday for a personal inspection of hospitals in the stricken city.
The unprecedented scale of the response speaks in part to the sheer size of China — 60 million people is greater than the entire population of South Korea, and Hubei spans the equivalent area as Syria. Such a lockdown has never been carried out in China before, not even during the 2003 SARS outbreak. The cost of it is staggering, not just in terms of manpower or funds, but also the economic hit Hubei will take and the knock on effect this will have on the wider Chinese economy during a sensitive period.
“Having realized just how serious this is, and how potentially destabilizing it is for the Party, the Party is now scrambling to fully mobilize resources to tackle the crisis,” they added.
As more and more becomes known about the initial spread of the virus and the dangers posed by it, suspicion has grown over how authorities in Wuhan handled the first weeks of the outbreak.
While there is always some uncertainty at first with regard to new pathogens, that officials in Wuhan held a major provincial Communist Party meeting, an attempt at a world record for the largest potluck lunch involving 40,000 families, and had police go after people spreading “rumors” about the virus online, does not cast them in the most positive light.
Many observers have speculated that some officials will be punished in the days and weeks to come, especially after Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang admitted on state TV that the city’s warnings “were not sufficient” and the infection rate will likely continue to climb.
There is also the almost staggering contrast in how the crisis has been handled since the central government got involved. Xi himself last week ordered “all-out efforts” to contain the virus’ spread and treat those affected, about a month after the virus was first detected.
However, he added that the slow response from local officials was likely the result of “deeply entrenched issues,” ones that may have actually been exacerbated by Xi’s much vaunted anti-corruption campaign.
“Ironically, the Chinese leadership’s keen efforts to push for accountability from bureaucrats and promise stiffer punishment for those who shirk responsibilities have contributed to their propensity to cover up disasters,” Wang said. “As Xi has consolidated his power and urged other officials to conform completely to the Party leadership, this has also strengthened a tendency to avoid making any important decisions and instead wait for specific instructions from the Party leadership.”
With more than a dozen countries now reporting cases of the virus, along with almost every region of China, the ability to rein in the pathogen’s spread may be somewhat out of the hands of the Chinese government.
Inside China, since January 22 when Xi intervened the government response has been colossal, but this does not seem to be having the desired effect, perhaps because of how far the virus spread before a reaction was ordered.
Two brand new hospitals are being constructed in Wuhan itself to aid its overstretched healthcare system, due to be completed by next week, while an additional 1,200 health workers — along with 135 People’s Liberation Army medical personnel — will soon arrive in the city.
But the hugely advanced infrastructure that China is relying on to contain the virus and transport aid and support to where it’s needed, is also what helped spread the pathogen in the first place.
A month ago, few outside China may have heard of Wuhan, yet the city — and a small wildlife market within it — has managed to impact countries the world over; a sign of just how connected we all are in a globalized world. Attempting to control this inter-connectivity, as China’s and other governments must do to stop the virus, may be far harder than reaping the economic benefits.
As Xi and the rest of the Standing Committee meet this week to discuss how to tackle the virus’s continued spread, they may decide on more draconian tactics. Whether their response is successful remains to be seen, as perhaps the world’s most powerful state apparatus grapples with what has bedeviled many of its predecessors — the sheer size and scale of China itself.