In the early days of the epidemic, which has been one of the biggest political challenges of Xi’s tenure, the president seemed to play a muted role, partly fuelling criticism of the government’s approach to the outbreak. But during a speech Xi delivered February 3, which was published by state media on Saturday, he said he gave instructions on fighting the virus as early as January 7.
China must make every effort to maintain economic and social control as it battles the coronavirus epidemic, and avoid causing panic that could lead to secondary “disasters,” President Xi Jinping told senior officials earlier this month.
It was not until late January that officials said the virus could spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.
In the address, Xi said he ordered the shutdowns at the epicentre: “On January 22, in light of the epidemic’s rapid spread and the challenges of prevention and control, I made a clear request that Hubei province implement comprehensive and stringent controls over the outflow of people.”
On January 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation.
The publication of the speech could be a sign the government hopes to demonstrate it was acting decisively from the beginning of the outbreak. It has been dealing with public anger, which reached a peak earlier this month following the death of Li Wenliang, a young doctor who was reprimanded by local police for trying to spread a warning about the virus. He ended up dying of the disease himself.
In an apparent response to the outrage, the ruling Communist Party’s top officials in Hubei and Wuhan were axed and replaced last week.
The disclosure also opens Xi up to criticism over why the general population was not alerted sooner. Trust in the government’s approach to outbreaks remains fractured after the SARS epidemic of 2002 and 2003, which was covered up for months.