Medical staff in protective suits at a hospital in Wuhan. Photo: STR / AFP

When the Wuhan virus outbreak started creating media waves across the globe, China’s state-run CCTV was dominated by a 22-minute spotlight on President Xi Jinping’s tour of Yunnan.

Back down the running order was the coronavirus story, the 10th item on CCTV’s agenda during Tuesday’s prime-time bulletin. The cult of personality appeared to have edged out the cult of breaking news.

But all that changed when Chang An Jian, the official social media account of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, issued an edict dressed up as a commentary.

The country’s main political body responsible for law and order finally made Beijing’s position clear even though the first case was reported on December 31:

“Anyone who puts the face of politicians before the interests of the people will be the sinner of a millennium to the party and the people. Anyone who deliberately delays and hides the reporting of [virus] cases out of his or her own self-interest will be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity.”

By Wednesday, the virus had gone viral on Weibo with speculation running rife on the government’s official figures released on those affected in Wuhan, according to the Sinocism website.

Wuhan lockdown

Twenty-four hours later, the city of 11 million people was in lockdown along with nearby Huanggang and effectively sealed off after the disease had claimed 17 lives with more than 570 people across China infected.

Authorities quickly suspended public transport, closed the main airport and stopped residents leaving “without a special reason.”

Since the first cases were revealed in Wuhan, the sprawling city in central Hubei province has become the epicenter of the outbreak. A seafood market, which illegally sold wild animals, has been identified as the cause of the disease.

Passengers arrive on one of the last flights from the Chinese city of Wuhan before the lockdown. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

In an editorial, the English-language state-run China Daily warned as Lunar New Year approaches:

“The country is facing a critical challenge to effectively bring the spread of the new virus under control. It is, therefore, exigent that the National Health Commission and its local counterparts spare no efforts in mobilizing as many resources as possible to contain the spread of the virus.

“Those who travel should wear masks. The more people who wear masks, the fewer opportunities there are for the virus to be transmitted from one person to another. This also proved to be effective in the 2003 fight against SARS … While hoping for the best, we need to ensure we are making every effort to prevent the worst.”

The Wuhan virus has been compared to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003 with its flu-like symptoms.

Already the outbreak has spread with cases reported in major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

As the disease mutates, concerns are growing about containing the virus with hundreds of millions of people traveling across China during the Lunar New Year holiday period, which starts this week.

Millions of Chinese tourists will also be heading abroad, posing problems at international airports. Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States are on high alert after confirming cases of the disease.

“Spring festival is just around the corner … which objectively increases the risk of the disease spreading and the difficulty of prevention and control. We must not be careless, and we must be highly vigilant,” Li Bin, the vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, told a media briefing in Beijing.

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A high-profile approach has also been adopted in Wuhan during the past two days after a special anti-virus command center was set up to “effectively cut off the virus spread” and “curb the outbreak.”

The AFP news agency reported that “a long line of cars” was “heading out of the city on Thursday” with officials checking the temperatures of drivers and passengers.

At Wuhan’s Hankou train station, police wearing masks were on patrol before the lockdown and there were even calls for Mayor Zhou Xianwang to resign. His comments that the city’s “warnings were not sufficient” triggered a flood of calls for his resignation.

‘So dangerous’

“From the perspective of continued understanding of the situation, it is only at this time that everyone realizes it is so dangerous,” Zhou told CCTV.

“If we knew at first from the virus spread that it would be so serious, finding effective control and prevention methods would [have been] put in place, but [we did not] realize the severity from the outset,” he added.

Still, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has praised China’s “very, very strong measures” to contain the disease, but felt “more information” was needed.

“By having a strong action not only will they control the outbreak in their country but they will also minimize the chances of this outbreak spreading internationally,” he said.

Needless to say, that made headline news on CCTV.

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