A hospital worker transfers medical waste in Yangzhou in eastern China's Jiangsu province after the virus outbreak in Wuhan. Photo: STR / AFP

President Xi Jinping has put China on a war footing against an enemy with more firepower than a carrier group.

As the microscopic predator continues to stalk the streets of the country’s major cities, the general secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conjured images of “demons” in the battle to curb the spread of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus.

Nearly 8,000 people have become infected by the 2019-nCoV disease with the death toll rising to 170. Already the tightly controlled state-owned media have called for calm and warned of the dangers of mass “panic” after practically ignoring the unfolding tragedy in the early part of last week.

Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the CCP and the official news agency in China, tried to make up for lost time in an editorial this week:

“Relying on the people also means being open and respecting their right to know the truth. The spread of panic can be more dangerous than the spread of the infection itself. Only by being open can panic be minimized.

“The disease respects no borders. Because of the way it spreads, it takes unified, nationwide efforts to stop it, as China is doing now. It is a war of the people and by the people. When the whole nation stands together, victory for the people is assured.”

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Those comments echoed Xi’s remarks after he compared “the epidemic” to a “demon” during a meeting in Beijing with Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Chinese people are currently engaged in a serious struggle against an epidemic of a new type of coronavirus infection. The government has always adopted an open, transparent and responsible attitude to the timely release of information on the epidemic to domestic and foreign countries,” Xi said.

Critics have disputed the transparency claim while the media coverage has been muted at times. But all that changed after Xi illustrated the depth of the crisis.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the number of people infected by the Wuhan virus in mainland China had overtaken the 5,327 confirmed cases during the SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, epidemic between 2002 and 2003. The National Health Commission released the news in a terse statement.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is the WHO’s highest priority,” Ghebreyesus said after talks with Xi.

Spiraling infection rates at home and the spread of the disease across the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States, have left the global community scrambling to combat the deadly disease.

So far, 15 cities have been sealed off in China with up to 56 million people, which is nearly the population of South Africa, in de facto quarantine after a travel ban was imposed last weekend.

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An editorial in the English-language China Daily highlighted the somber mood when the state-owned newspaper conceded:

“The pandemic is now a test of China’s governing capacity as it seeks to mobilize all resources to curb the spread of the virus. Tremendous efforts [are now needed after] the tardiness of some officials to act in the wake of the breakout. That is why President Xi Jinping issued ‘an order of war,’ instructing all leading local officials to put people’s health first and lead the fight against the virus on the frontline.

“Although the advancement of science and technology has dramatically reduced the death tolls of pandemics, the [spread of the] novel coronavirus has once again shown that the specter of deadly pandemics like Spanish influenza still looms over us. Transparency is [now] necessary to eliminate the fears that feed and grow in the dark. The authorities have no reason not to shine a light on the situation. They must ensure people have a true picture of what is happening.”

For Xi and the CCP, this a major challenge. During the past seven days, the virus has gone viral on Weibo, the Twitter-like social-media app, with speculation running rife on the government’s handling of the outbreak.

“This is probably the greatest political challenge that [Xi has] faced since taking office in 2012,” Allison Sherlock, a China researcher at the Eurasia Group, a risk consultancy, said. “At the central level, President Xi and his right-hand man, Premier Li Keqiang, I think they understand that the stakes are very high here.

“The mishandling of the virus didn’t just lead to the rapid spread of the outbreak, it also eroded trust in the government. And they’re going to try to do everything in their power to ensure that people start believing in their local officials again,” she told the CNBC television network.

Now, it appears Xi is fighting a “war” on two fronts, a deadly virus and public opinion. Failure is not an option.

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