China leader under scrutiny over crisis handling

US disappointed on Beijing’s lack of transparency

Facing increased foreign scrutiny over their handling of the novel coronavirus crisis, China’s President Xi Jinping on Friday sacked two top-ranking officials in Hubei province and replaced them with senior Communist Party cadres with security backgrounds.

The United States, for one, accused China of lacking transparency, as the health emergency in China has caused fears of more global contagion, with more than two-dozen countries reporting hundreds of cases among them.

Three people have died outside mainland China as the death toll from the virus epidemic neared 1,400 on Friday, with six medical workers among the victims, underscoring the country’s struggle to contain a deepening health crisis.

READ: COVID-19: WHO tags virus from Wuhan very grave threat

While the World Health Organization has praised China’s handling of the epidemic—in contrast to its cover-up of the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003—a top White House official on Thursday said Beijing should be more open.

“We are a little disappointed that we haven’t been invited in and we’re a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese,” Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.

Kudlow said Xi had assured US President Donald Trump that Beijing would accept US help, but “they won’t let us.”

Kudlow’s comments contrasted with Trump’s apparent confidence in China, with the US leader telling a radio show that Xi is “extremely capable” and that the US was “working with them” and “sending a lot of people.”

Xi, who has now taken personal charge of the response to COVID-19, appointed his allies to run the province and its capital Wuhan as the novel coronavirus outbreak in the country shows no sign of abating, CNN reported.

Nearly 64,000 people are now recorded as having fallen ill from the virus in China, with officials revealing that 1,716 health workers had been infected as of Tuesday.

The grim figure comes a week after an outpouring of grief and public anger over the death of a whistleblowing doctor who had been reprimanded and silenced by police after raising the alarm about the virus in December.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing has had an “open and transparent attitude” with the global community since the start of the epidemic.

“The Chinese side has always a positive, open attitude toward cooperation with the US side,” Geng told reporters, adding that US and Chinese health departments have maintained close communication and exchanged epidemic information in a “timely manner.”

State media announced Thursday that the Communist Party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan had both been removed. Ying Yong, the former mayor of Shanghai, will become the new Hubei chief, while Wang Zhonglin will take over Wuhan itself.

Ying is a key protege of Xi’s, and the two men have worked together since the early 2000s when they were both officials in the eastern province of Zhejiang, CNN added. Another Zhejiang veteran and Xi ally, Chen Yixin, is already in Wuhan. 

Chen arrived in the city last week to lead the response to the epidemic—his appointment there was seen as Xi moving to take charge of the crisis after it was mishandled in the early weeks by Wuhan and Hubei officials, who have been accused of downplaying the severity of the virus, resulting in its spread nationwide.

In Cambodia, passengers on a cruise ship that was turned away from ports around Asia over fears they could be carrying the new coronavirus finally began disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.

Cambodia’s strongman premier Hun Sen welcomed around 100 tourists who were handed flowers and scarves as they stepped ashore after an uncertain two weeks at sea.

The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 2,257 passengers and crew on a 14-day cruise around east Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on Feb. 1 and ending on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan. 

But the vessel was barred by Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears it was carrying someone with a new virus that has now killed around 1,400 people and sickened 64,000, mostly in China.

Cambodia—a staunch Beijing ally that receives huge sums of Chinese money every year—announced this week that the boat could dock in Sihanoukville.

Dozens of jubilant passengers took advantage of their new-found freedom and visited a nearby beach, while some hugged Hun Sen—Cambodia’s ruler for 35 years—as they disembarked. One man even kissed the ground. 

The scale of the epidemic swelled this week after authorities in central Hubei province, the epicenter of the contagion, changed their criteria to count the number of cases, adding thousands of new patients to their tally.

The majority of cases of infections among health workers was in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, where many have lacked proper masks and gear to protect themselves in hospitals dealing with a deluge of patients.

Some 80,000 medical workers were involved in combatting the epidemic in Wuhan, the city government said earlier this month.

After the death of whistleblower Li Wenliang, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist in Wuhan, 10 academics circulated an open letter calling for political reform and freedom of speech in the Communist-ruled country.

Authorities in Hubei province on Thursday started counting patients who were “clinically diagnosed” via lung imaging, in addition to those who undergo lab tests.

The revision added nearly 15,000 patients to Hubei’s count in a single day, with officials explaining that past cases were included. The first cases emerged in December in Wuhan.

On Friday, Hubei’s health commission said another 116 people had died and more than 4,800 new cases were reported. Of those cases, more than 3,000 were “clinically diagnosed.”

The WHO said the numbers included cases going back weeks.

The sharp one-day increase “does not represent a significant change in the trajectory of the outbreak,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergency program.

READ: Global health emergency eyed over outbreak

The move will ensure patients get treated as early as possible, instead of having to wait for laboratory tests, health officials said.

“There have been some backlogs in testing and this is also going to help in ensuring that people get adequate care,” Ryan said.

The National Health Commission said the new criteria would only apply to Hubei. 

The commission reported five other deaths and 217 new cases elsewhere in China, as the number of new patients outside Hubei fell for a 10th straight day.

It also disclosed a statistical error, saying it removed 108 previous deaths in Hubei that had been double-counted. The nationwide toll still rose to 1,380.

Authorities have placed some 56 million people in Hubei under quarantine since late last month, in an unprecedented effort to stop the new coronavirus from spreading.

Some cities in Hubei tightened restrictions this week, sealing off neighborhoods in what they liken to “war-time” measures.

Authorities have scrambled to deploy protective equipment to Wuhan’s hospitals, where doctors and nurses have been overwhelmed by an ever-growing number of patients.

The government has also built two field hospitals within two weeks and converted public buildings into makeshift clinics to relieve Wuhan’s hospitals.

Several countries have banned arrivals from China, while major airlines have halted flights to and from the country.

The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the vulnerability of China’s northern neighbour, North Korea, and offered to support aid work in the country.

Cambodia receives billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure and investment from China, which dispenses it with no questions asked over human rights abuses in the country.

Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving leader, has been vocal in his praise of Beijing’s handling of the epidemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Unlike most Western nations, he refused to evacuate citizens from the epicenter, insisting that Cambodians should show their support for the Chinese. 

Last week, he traveled to Beijing to meet with Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping in a show of solidarity. 

The apparent act of compassion over the Westerdam by Hun Sen follows the partial withdrawal by the European Union of trade benefits to some Cambodian industries over the kingdom’s woeful rights record.

The fate of the Westerdam is in sharp contrast to the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined off Japan where more than 200 people have been infected by the virus. 

READ: 4 more Pinoys aboard cruise ship test positive

READ: Nations take drastic steps to rim spread

READ: Public warned: No cure for n-CoV; only hygiene

Topics: novel coronavirus crisis , Xi Jinping , World Health Organization , Larry Kudlow
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