A member of the medical team at the Central Hospital in Wuhan attends to a patient infected with the coronavirus. Photo: Handout / AFP

President Xi Jinping talked about “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” in Beijing this week as the nightmare continued in virus-ravaged Wuhan.

At the State Council reception on Thursday, he delivered a keynote address in the Great Hall of the People ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

“Time and history wait for no one as they are both on the side of hard workers. In the new year, we must secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society,” Xi said as reported by the state-run news agency Xinhua.

But there was no mention of the spread of the coronavirus, according to the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party.

At least the state-owned nationalist newspaper Global Times published an editorial entitled Salute to Wuhan citizens for their sacrifice:

“It is the first time since 1949 [that] the outbound channels of such a large provincial capital have been shut down. Wuhan is also known as a thoroughfare to nine provinces and the largest transportation hub in Central China. Therefore, it is undoubtedly difficult to make the decision to close the city. It needs much courage and rationality to take this step.

“We sincerely appreciate the sacrifices made by Wuhan citizens. They will make a great contribution to stop the uncontrolled spread of the epidemic … The suspension of public transportation in the city will bring a serious inconvenience to Wuhan locals … But the Chinese people will be with the citizens of Wuhan.”

So far, the death toll from the SARS-like virus has reached 56 while at least 2,000 people have become infected, the Center for Health Protection in Beijing reported at the weekend.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong between 2002 and 2003 with its flu-like symptoms. Already the Wuhan outbreak has spread with cases reported in major Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Shenzhen.

High alert

As the disease mutates, concerns are growing about containing the virus after hundreds of millions of people traveled across the country for the Lunar New Year holiday period.

Large numbers of Chinese tourists have also headed abroad, posing problems at international airports. Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States have been on high alert after confirming cases of the disease.

In a move to stabilize the situation, Xi’s government has locked down Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and 12 other smaller cities, sealing off 40 million people, which is more than the population of Canada.

The World Health Organization has since labeled China a “very high risk” but stopped short of declaring a global emergency.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, told a media briefing in Geneva on Thursday. “We know that among those infected, one-quarter of patients have experienced severe disease and that it can kill.

“We know that most of those who have died had underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, which weakened their immune systems. We know that there is human-to-human transmission in China, but for now, it appears limited to family groups and health workers caring for infected patients,” he continued.

“At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t happen,” Ghebreyesus added.

In Wuhan, the sprawling city of more than 10 million people has resembled a ghost town after being placed in “quarantine” by Beijing. But a glimpse of the fear stalking residents was captured by the AFP news agency:

“At a temperature-screening station in a hospital, a member of the medical staff in a full-length white protective suit, face mask and goggles took a thermometer from a middle-aged woman, pausing to examine the reading before quickly turning back to the patient.

“‘Have you registered? Then go and see the doctor,’” she was told. One 35-year-old man voiced the concerns of many. ‘I have a fever and a cough, so I’m worried that I’m infected,’ he said. ‘I don’t know the results yet. I’m worried.’”

Viral virus

News of the virus has gone viral on social media in China. Videos posted on Twitter show scenes of chaos as under pressure doctors and nurses try to restore calm as frightened citizens wait in line to be checked for the disease.

“Video from a chat group shows the dire situation in Wuhan’s overcrowded hospitals,” Xinyan Yu, a senior video producer at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, tweeted. “All concerned citizens, sick or not, have been waiting for confirmation on whether they’ve caught the #WuhanCoronavirus. Imagine how easily people can get sick from standing in these lines.”

Even though the state-run media machine has tightly controlled information about the disease, the censors have struggled to cope with an avalanche of online comments tinged with anger.

A post on the Twitter-styled Weibo site about medical staff being infected was viewed 1.5 billion times. On China’s leading message app WeChat, an editorial by the Beijing News calling for more transparency received 100,000 hits.

Earlier this week, a study released by Imperial College London tried to answer the crucial question about the scale of the infection rate. It concluded:

“It is likely that the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan has caused substantially more cases of moderate or severe respiratory illness than have currently been detected and reported. However, recent rapid increases in officially reported confirmed case numbers in China suggest that case detection and reporting have been substantially enhanced in recent days.

“With further refinements to case definitions and testing and further expansion of surveillance (for instance, to primary care providers) it is to be hoped that the differences between our estimates and official case numbers will lessen further.”

For Xi and his inner circle, the “Chinese Dream” will face its biggest test in the days ahead.

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