New Virus Cases Fall; Xi Urged Steps as Early as Jan. 7

People wearing masks walk past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping on a street in Shanghai, China, last week. (Reuters/Aly Song/File Photo)

China reported Sunday a drop in new virus cases for the third straight day, as it became apparent that the country’s leadership was aware of the potential gravity of the situation well before the alarm was sounded.

In the early days of the epidemic, which has been one of the biggest political challenges of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure, Xi played a muted role. But state media published Saturday evening a speech Xi delivered Feb. 3 in which he said he gave instructions on fighting the virus as early as Jan. 7.

The disclosure indicates top leaders knew about the outbreak’s potential severity weeks before such dangers were made known to the public. It was not until late January that officials said the virus can spread between humans and public alarm began to rise.

There are 2,009 new cases in mainland China, bringing its total number of confirmed cases to 68,500, according to the country’s National Health Commission.

The fatality rate remained stable with 142 new deaths, the commission said. The death toll in mainland China from COVID-19, a disease stemming from a new form of coronavirus, now stands at 1,665. In all, 9,419 people have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

China’s fall in new cases follows a spike of more than 15,000 on Thursday, when the central Province of Hubei adopted a new diagnostic method that includes clinical diagnoses in its official account. Overwhelmed by suspected cases, the province has not able to test every person exhibiting symptoms. The clinical diagnosis is based on doctors’ analysis and lung imaging and is intended to allow probable cases to be treated as confirmed ones without the need to wait for a lab result.

The outbreak began in December in Wuhan, capital of Hubei, which hosts the bulk of infections.

It has since spread to more than 24 countries and prompted sweeping prevention measures from the Chinese government, including a lockdown of cities with a combined population of more than 60 million.

In his speech, Xi revealed that he ordered the shutdowns at the epicenter: “On Jan. 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 Jan. 23, Wuhan became the first city to impose an unprecedented halt on outbound transportation.

Xi was previously seen as taking a backseat in the crisis while authorities in Hubei and Wuhan faced public fury over their initial handling of the epidemic. The anger 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 apparent response to the outrage, the ruling Communist Party’s top officials in Hubei and Wuhan were axed and replaced last week.

The publication of Xi’s speech suggests the party hopes to demonstrate it acted decisively from the beginning. But it 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.

Even as authorities have pledged transparency through the current outbreak, they have labelled people like Li as “rumormongers.” Citizen journalists who challenged the official narrative have disappeared and are believed to be detained.

The virus has prompted many countries to place travel restrictions on recent visitors to China.