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Xi leads people’s war on epidemic

China Daily | Updated: 2020-03-12 03:33
President Xi Jinping inquires about purchasing and supply of people's daily necessities at a community in Wuhan, March 10, 2020. (Xinhua/Xie Huanchi)

Response not only protected Chinese, also impeded global spread of illness

WUHAN — Standing in a hospital hall, a man wearing a face mask waved to a big screen. On the screen, a patient seen lying in bed, flanked by two medical workers, waved back.

"What you should do now is stay confident. We all should be confident that we will win this war," the man said through a video link at Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan, epicenter of the novel coronavirus pneumonia outbreak and capital of Hubei province.

"Victory for Wuhan, victory for Hubei and victory for China!" the man declared with a clenched fist.

The man of the hour was President Xi Jinping, commander-in-chief of China's war against COVID-19, who flew into Wuhan on Tuesday to inspect epidemic prevention and control work on the ground.

By this week, the viral respiratory disease had spread to more than 100 countries and regions and infected over 100,000 people. It poses a major public health threat to mankind following SARS, MERS and Ebola.

For Xi, general secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission, this epidemic represents one of the biggest tests in his eight years of governance, as 80 percent of infections — including more than 3,000 deaths — have been in China.

The outbreak has been the most difficult public health emergency to contain since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he said.

Xi declared a "people's war" to fight this invisible enemy by mobilizing the force of the whole country.

As medics and scientists battled the previously unknown virus head-on, hundreds of millions of people abandoned their plans and instead stayed at home for weeks on end.

Cities were locked down, businesses suspended, public events canceled and even the annual sessions of the national legislative and political advisory bodies postponed for the first time due to a public health emergency.

After an arduous struggle, positive signs have emerged. Daily new cases on the Chinese mainland dropped to 19 on Monday, down from the plateau of thousands a month ago. Most provinces have reported zero increase for days.

Even in Wuhan, the situation has turned the corner, with more than 30,000 patients discharged and all temporary hospitals created to handle the epidemic shut down.

The spread of the disease has been basically curbed, Xi said, noting the initial success in stabilizing the situation and turning the tide in Hubei and Wuhan.

"But the prevention and control work remains arduous," he said, demanding consistent efforts to keep epidemic prevention and control as a task of paramount importance.

Leadership in time of crisis

In a meeting with World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Beijing on Jan 28, Xi said he has been personally directing the outbreak response and devising prevention and control measures all along.

Epidemic response was on the agenda in a series of Party leadership meetings Xi presided over since early January, including seven meetings of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee. Xi also took the lead in making a financial donation to the cause.

During this period, Xi convened two teleconferences for officials from across the country. The biggest was attended by an unprecedented audience of 170,000.

Before visiting Wuhan, Xi had made two epidemic-related inspections in Beijing on neighborhood prevention and control measures, patient treatment in designated hospitals and scientific research.

He also issued oral or written instructions every day. On Jan 22, Hubei was asked to impose full and strict controls over outbound population flows. "Making this decision requires huge political courage. Time calls for resolute action. Otherwise, we would be in trouble," Xi said.

A day later, Wuhan suspended all urban public transportation and cut off outbound flights and trains. Putting a megacity with over 10 million residents under quarantine was unprecedented but effective.

Tedros said the "serious measures" taken at the epicenter not only protected Chinese people but also impeded the spread of the virus to other countries.

On Tuesday, Xi again called the people of Wuhan "heroic", saying that today's positive trend in epidemic control would not be possible without their sacrifices and devotion.

"Xi is the backbone of this battle," said Liu Jingbei, a professor at the China Executive Leadership Academy in the Pudong New Area in Shanghai. "His leadership is crucial for the country to ultimately beat the epidemic."

Under Xi's command, a central leading group on the epidemic response headed by Premier Li Ke­qiang was established on Jan 25. Two days later, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan was sent to oversee the work on the ground in Hubei and has been stationed there ever since. In February, Party chiefs of Hubei and Wuhan were replaced in light of the serious problems exposed in the initial response.

But in essence, what Xi commands is a people's war against the epidemic. By and large, it is a war waged by the people and for the people, reflecting the core values of the 90-million-member CPC.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a leading US scholar on China and chairman of the Kuhn Foundation, said China's mobilization is unprecedented in global health history.

Unprecedented response

Xi ordered the use of the entire country's resources to pool strength into tackling the issue, which is an advantage of China's socialist system.

About 42,600 medical workers from around the country were dispatched to Hubei. Academicians, leading experts on respiratory illnesses and infectious diseases, and a tenth of the country's intensive care specialists were all called to the epicenter, according to the National Health Commission.

In Wuhan, 86 hospitals were designated to treat COVID-19 patients, two new hospitals were built from scratch in just two weeks and 16 exhibition halls and sports venues were converted into temporary hospitals, opening up 60,000 beds for COVID-19 patients in just a month.

Outside the hard-hit zone, production of medical supplies was cranked up and expedited deliveries were arranged to ensure the goods quickly reached their destination.

In a short time, everything from surgical masks to advanced life support systems streamed to the front line, including at least 67 ECMO machines — which oxygenate and pump the blood — and 17,000 ventilators, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in early March.

Recounting his experience in leading WHO experts on a nine-day joint mission investigating COVID-19 in China, Canadian epidemiologist Bruce Aylward commended the readiness of Chinese medical institutions.

"If I had COVID-19, I'd want to be treated in China," he said. "They know and they care about keeping people alive, and they do it successfully."

According to the China-WHO joint mission, the case fatality rate of COVID-19 patients was estimated at between 3 to 4 percent in the Chinese mainland but only 0.7 percent in places outside Wuhan.

Universities, research institutes and businesses are working together to improve diagnostics, vaccines and medicines. The latest rapid testing kit can show results in 15 minutes by examining a single drop of blood. And the government made it clear: Once confirmed, patients should not be worried about expenses; treatment is free.

Around the country, targeted prevention and control measures were taken to stem the outbreak. In some cities, grid management and neighborhood watches were initiated to detect and isolate suspected cases and their close contacts as soon as possible.

In a huge country with a population of 1.4 billion, people acted orderly; they heeded the government's advice and locked themselves at home for weeks in a row.

The China-WHO joint mission said this truly "all-of-government and all-of-society" approach has averted or at least delayed hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 cases in the country.

Under Xi's command, a constant theme of this war has been "people first".

He has stressed putting people's life and health as the top priority and placing the people's interests above everything else.

On Tuesday, Xi said all prevention and control measures have been taken by the CPC Central Committee with the primary focus on preventing more people from being infected and saving more patients' lives.

Joint fight

Viruses respect no borders in the global village. Within weeks, the coronavirus has spread to all continents except Antarctica.

Public health security is a common challenge faced by humanity, and all countries should join hands to cope with it, Xi said.

Since the outbreak, China has actively cooperated and exchanged information with the WHO and other countries, quickly sharing with them the full genome sequences of the new virus after the pathogen was identified on Jan 7.

Tedros has on many occasions commended China for its serious measures to contain the virus, saying the measures not only protected the Chinese people but also gained time for other countries to gear up their response.

In a little more than a month, Xi spoke over the phone with 14 foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and US President Donald Trump, and met with Tedros, Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga in Beijing, stressing international cooperation in combating the epidemic.

More foreign leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin sent telegrams or issued statements. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, leaders of more than 170 countries and 40 international or regional organizations voiced support for China.

Xi said China adheres to the concept of building a community with a shared future for mankind as it actively contributes to safeguarding global public health while going all out to protect its people's lives and health.

Aylward said the tremendous collective will of the Chinese people helped gain a few weeks that were "so important" for the world. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed gratitude to the Chinese who sacrificed many aspects of their normal lives to impede the spread of the virus.

To help the global battle against COVID-19, China made a donation to the WHO, provided masks and protective gowns to the Republic of Korea, sent testing kits to Pakistan, Japan, Iran and the African Union and dispatched experts to Iran.

National rejuvenation

Xi said national rejuvenation, or the Chinese Dream, could not be realized without major struggles.

The epidemic, observers said, serves as a good reminder of that. The wild animal consumption business was large. There was a serious shortage in reserves of essential medical supplies. There was no biosecurity law. Bureaucratism at the grassroots level obstructed the epidemic response.

Xi said the epidemic was a big test for China's system and capacity for governance and called for learning the lessons and targeting the weak links and shortcomings exposed in the epidemic to improve the national emergency management system and the ability to handle urgent and difficult tasks.

Since early February, Xi has been issuing instructions on stabilizing the economy.

The Chinese economy, which grew by 6.1 percent in 2019, is expected to take a hit in the short run, but the impact is manageable. Factories, including suppliers to foreign companies like Apple, Tesla and FAW-Volkswagen Automobile, have resumed operations.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said she expects China's economy to "return to normal" in the second quarter of 2020.

The year is key for China as the country plans to eliminate extreme poverty. Last week, Xi convened a teleconference on poverty relief and ordered cadres to overcome the epidemic impact to clinch a complete victory in the anti-poverty fight.

After achieving a moderately prosperous society in all respects, China will aim for basically realizing socialist modernization by 2035 and becoming a great modern socialist country by the middle of the 21st century.

"Time and history wait for no one," Xi said at a Chinese Lunar New Year reception on Jan 23, the same day Wuhan was locked down. "We must maintain strategic direction and resolve, stay united, work hard and forge ahead against all odds."

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