By Xinhua and Bloomberg
President Xi Jinping on Sunday vowed China’s unremitting efforts in the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) epidemic.
“This is both a crisis and a big test for us,” Xi said during an unprecedented mass meeting of top Chinese leaders in Beijing on Sunday.
“The COVID-19 outbreak is a major public health emergency that has spread in the fastest speed, caused the most extensive infection, and is the most difficult to contain in the country since the founding of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
Global pandemic feared
As China takes relentless efforts to battle COVID-19, the emergence of new centers of coronavirus infection outside of China is fueling concern the outbreak could become a global pandemic, rattling financial markets and stoking anxiety over the potential hit to economies.
While the outbreak in China appears to be becoming more predictable, with the lockdown of Wuhan – the city where the pathogen first emerged – being eased, the virus is taking hold in other parts of the world, with increasing infection and death tolls in South Korea, Italy and parts of the Middle East sparking the most alarm.
South Korea confirmed 70 more novel coronavirus cases Monday afternoon, bringing its tally to 833, by far the largest national total outside China.
The country has seen a rapid surge in the number of coronavirus cases – adding more than 700 cases in less than a week – since a cluster of infections emerged from a religious sect in the southern city of Daegu.
Most of the country’s cases are connected to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in Daegu, including 129 of Monday’s confirmations, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement.
Two more people had died, it added – both of them connected to a second cluster around a hospital – taking the toll to seven.
More than 100 cases have been confirmed at the Daenam Hospital in Cheongdo, near Daegu, most of them inpatients being treated for mental illnesses.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Sunday raised the country’s virus alert to the highest “red” level, in a bid to strengthen the government response to the spiralling outbreak.
Sunday’s meeting in Beijing was presided over by Li Keqiang and attended by Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng. Officials from the political Bureau of CPC Central Committee to county-level Party officials and military officials of corresponding level attended the meeting via videophone. Some 170,000 officials took part in the meeting.
President Xi Jinping arranged and coordinated epidemic prevention and social and economic development during the meeting.
Xi, also general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, called for firm, solid, and meticulous efforts in the epidemic prevention and control, urging Party committees and governments at all levels to remain vigilant and make unremitting efforts in the epidemic prevention and control work.
“No victory should be lightly announced until there is a complete win,” Xi said.
Course of action vs COVID-19
Xi enumerated the courses of action the government will take:
- Hubei Province, as well as its capital city Wuhan, should be safeguarded with resolute efforts, with focal attention to containing the spread to communities and treating the patients;
- The epidemic prevention and control work in Beijing should be carried out with all-out efforts. Both imported cases and spread within the city should be prevented;
- Medical resources and key supplies should be allocated in a scientific manner, providing more protection for the medical workers;
- Scientific research should be accelerated in terms of drug and vaccine development. Effective diagnosis and treatment plans should be summarized and promoted in time;
- International and regional cooperation should be expanded. Close coordination with the World Health Organization and experience sharing with relevant countries will continue;
- Public communication through news media should be more effective. Release of epidemic information should be improved;
- Social stability should be safeguarded. Illegal activities disturbing medical treatment, epidemic prevention, and market and social order should be severely punished.
“The Chinese nation has experienced many ordeals in its history, but it has never been overwhelmed. Instead, it has become more and more courageous, growing up and rising up from the hardships,” Xi said.
“The epidemic situation remains grim and complex and it is now a most crucial moment to curb the spread,” he added.
Xi asked Party committees and government officials at all levels to continue with their unremitting efforts in various prevention and control work.
He said efforts should be made to fully unleash the huge potential and powerful driving force of China’s development, and strive to achieve the goals and tasks for economic and social development this year.
In order to win the people’s war against the epidemic, the Party’s leadership should be strengthened, Xi said.
Li Keqiang called on all officials to rally behind the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core and urged them to strictly enforce the decisions and policies made by the CPC Central Committee.
Second peak possible
The bursts of infections outside China could drive a second peak in an epidemic that’s already killed more than 2,400 in China and severely disrupted global business and travel activity.
In Italy and Iran, the mortality rate from the pneumonia-causing virus appears to be much higher than that in China, hinting at hundreds or thousands of still-undiscovered cases of infection. In South Korea, which has the most in-country cases outside of China, the government raised its public health alert to the highest level, allowing it to quarantine cities, delay the start of school and restrict people’s movements.
Stocks and higher-yielding assets retreated across Asia Monday, as investors grappled with the implications of the widening outbreak.
But Xi downplayed the impact of the epidemic on China’s economic and social development as “temporary and generally manageable.”
He said the COVID-19 epidemic will inevitably deal a relatively big blow to China’s economic and social development. However, at such a time it is even more important to view China’s development in a comprehensive, dialectical and long-term perspective, and to strengthen and firm up confidence.
In general, the fundamentals of China’s long-term sound economic growth remain unchanged, Xi added.
Risk to economy
South Korea, however, warned the epidemic poses a risk to its fragile economic recovery as airlines halted flights and travel agencies canceled group tours to the country. Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. are among major companies taking precautions as the outbreak rapidly gathers pace.
“I don’t think it can be contained and there is a long way to go before reaching the turning point,” said Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at Hong Kong University. “The roles will soon be reversed — countries that had banned travel from China may soon see China ban travel from them.”
Italy is becoming a virus hotspot, raising alarm levels given the European Union’s policy of free movement of people and goods within the 27-nation bloc. The Italian government canceled the remaining days of the Venice Carnival at the weekend and universities and restaurants have been closed with three deaths and at least 140 infections recorded.
Austria halted train traffic from Italy on Sunday as an area of 50,000 people near Milan was locked down amid the surge in cases.
In Iran, reports there of eight deaths out of 43 infections — which equates to a mortality rate of 18.6% — sparked widespread concern that the extent of the virus’ spread within the closed-off country is being covered up. The mortality rate in China, where there is more than 76,000 cases, is 3.2%.
Kuwait and Bahrain reported their first cases of the virus on Monday, linked to people who traveled back from Iran. (With a report from AFP)