Medical staff check temperatures of passengers at a train station in Wuhan, capital of the central Hubei province. Photo: AFP

Heads will have to roll in the top echelons of Hubei’s government and China’s national public health watchdog, now that the novel coronavirus emanating from Wuhan, the province’s capital, has infected thousands in the central region and creeped into not only major urban centers but also rural areas across Taiwan, Tibet and the rest of Asia.

More people are developing febrile respiratory symptoms throughout the country, and the number of people killed by the pathogen – so new it does not have a name yet – broke the 100 mark on Tuesday.

More cities in other provinces such as Guangdong and Zhejiang are moving in lockstep with Wuhan, halting metro and bus services, shutting restaurants and malls, and canceling Lunar New Year celebrations. And amid the health scare, some cadres have even scrambled to marshal policemen and militia groups to guard major approaches to urban areas and residential quarters, dissuading non-locals, especially those from Hubei, from entering. They have promised to settle those stranded Hubei residents at resorts and hotels expropriated for quarantine and medical observation purposes.

Few cars and pedestrians are seen along a thoroughfare in Ningbo in eastern China, as the city takes on the look of a deserted town amid the health scare.
A major street in a county in the eastern Zhejiang province is devoid of traffic as people are urged to stay indoors to avoid the epidemic.
Barricades and boards are erected to fence off a local residential community as part of new measures to stop the spread of the virus. Photos: Asia Times

Yet state media propaganda about unity and solidarity has failed to muffle people’s grumbles, with angst simmering among many who have grown skeptical of the official nationwide infection figures, with the specter of a repeat of the SARS crisis in 2003 looming large.

This has been especially true since Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong made a spectacle of himself during a hastily arranged press conference over the past weekend, with videos of him making a gaffe going viral online.

Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong (center) was the only person who did not wear a mask during a recent press conference on the coronavirus outbreak, while Wuhan mayor Zhou Xianwang (right) was seen wearing his mask upside down. Photo: CCTV screen grab

At the televised conference, Wang shocked reporters when he claimed that producers in Hubei could churn out no less than 10.8 billion masks each year, but soon had to eat humble pie and slash his estimate to 1.08 billion masks, stressing he may have misspoken to reporters, after he was given a note by his aide reminding him that he had stumbled over these figures.

Wang again stirred a commotion before the same event drew to a close, when he admitted he was “not numerate” and that medical tools and gear were indeed in short supply in Hubei at present as only 1.08 million masks had been made in the province last year according to the latest statistics he was briefed on.

The Hubei governor previously caused a furore as he assured China Central Television reporters that his province would always have enough medical supplies on his watch. However, doctors at local hospitals packed with panicked patients took to social media to call for donations of masks, as stocks had long been depleted.

Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong is mocked for his grossly inaccurate estimates of how many masks his province can produce each year. Photo: Handout

Meanwhile, Wuhan’s embattled mayor Zhou Xianwang, who was criticized for wearing a mask upside down during the same press conference, is also bearing the blunt of the blame for the perceived initial coverup by local cadres.

Zhou is accused of making light of the contagion from the outset of the epidemic in mid-December when a growing number of people in his city, including medical professionals who attended to the sick, were taken ill by the deadly virus.

On Monday Zhou hinted in a separate CCTV interview that the city’s government had been barred from releasing any information without prior approval from the National Health Commission until more power was delegated on January 20, when people outside Wuhan were alerted for the first time. However, the move to curb the spread of the virus was too late to reduce inter-city and inter-provincial travel during the Lunar New Year rush.

Still, Zhou said during the interview aired nationwide that he had no intention of absolving himself of responsibility and would offer to resign “if that could help with the ongoing fight.”

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang has been dropping hints that he was not allowed to release reports about the outbreak until Janvary 20. Photo: AFP

China’s laws governing disease prevention and control forbid local governments from making public related information until authorized to do so by the national health authority.

With the virus still spreading, many wonder if some senior officials will be forced to quit.

In early 2003, China’s belated efforts failed to halt the spread of the SARS virus, and fear gripped the streets of Beijing for months, damaging the nation’s image and the credibility of the newly installed president, Hu Jintao. In April, the then-mayor of Beijing, Meng Xuenong, was publicly named and shamed, and eventually told to resign, and the then-Minister of Health Zhang Wenkang was also sacked, just a few months after assuring the public that the virus had been contained.

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