Chinese President Xi Jinping called for sweeping improvements to China’s health emergency response system on Friday, as the country continued to battle a deadly virus outbreak that has brought part of the economy to a standstill.
Stressing the need to strengthen legislation on public health, Xi also called for a review of laws on infectious disease prevention and treatment, as well as wildlife protection, highlighting the need to speed up legislation on biosecurity.
In a meeting with top leadership in Beijing, Xi, who has taken a higher profile in directing the fight against the virus in recent days, called the outbreak a “major test for the national governance system and governance capacity” and said the system was falling short.
“There is not enough preparation for a catastrophe – the risk assessments, research and in-depth management for emergencies are not in place,” he said. “There is inadequate monitoring and early warning systems, and the foundations of emergency management need to be strengthened.”
Speaking in Beijing at a leadership forum on deepening reform, Xi said that despite the urgency of the outbreak, cadres should not lose sight of the long-term reform battle.
“[We must] win this battle against the contagion by relying on science and taking decisive action. But we should also take a long-term view, summarise the experience and learn our lessons ... so we can strengthen our areas of weakness and close the loopholes exposed by the epidemic,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.
“[We need to] refine our prevention and control mechanism for major epidemics, and strengthen our national public health management system.”
The handling of the crisis, which started in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December and has infected more than 63,000 people in all corners of the country, has triggered an outpouring of public criticism, with many questioning the local government’s response, poor disclosure of information and the shortage of necessary protective and emergency supplies for frontline medical workers.
On Friday, officials revealed that a total of 1,716 medical workers had been infected by the coronavirus and at least six doctors had died, blaming the problem on a shortage of medical supplies in the early days of the epidemic.
Beijing has been purging top officials in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, amid the public anger.
Xinhua reported on Thursday that Hubei Communist Party secretary Jiang Chaoliang had been replaced by Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, 61, a close ally of Xi.
Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang, 56, also lost his job, Xinhua reported. He has been replaced by Wang Zhonglin, 57, the party secretary of the city of Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong.
Addressing the reform meeting on Friday, Xi said China needed to accelerate the introduction of a biosecurity law to safeguard national security.
According to an earlier Xinhua report, a draft of a biosecurity law was submitted to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee for review in October.
The draft focused on protecting the security of China’s biological resources, and preventing and prohibiting the use of biological agents or biotechnology that may harm national security, the report said.
It also addressed issues such as the prevention of emerging infectious diseases and epidemics, and biosecurity at laboratories, making public health part of national security.
Xi also said the wildlife protection law, which allows the trade in some wildlife, needed to be reassessed.
In Wuhan, Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan called on officials to “fight a full-scale and decisive war” against the coronavirus in Hubei.
“Whether our country can win this war against the coronavirus will depend on how we fight the battle in Hubei and Wuhan,” she said.
While epidemiologists have expressed hope that the spread of the disease might peak in coming weeks, new confirmed cases of infection continued to rise in Hubei, especially in Wuhan.
In response, Wuhan imposed even more draconian community control measures on Tuesday, such as shutting down shops and confining people to their homes.
Two days later, a State Council task force in charge of the fight against the virus extended those measures to other Hubei cities, including Huanggang and Xiaogan.
Both Huanggang and Xiaogan have now sealed off their neighbourhoods, banned all private vehicles from the streets and enlisted community staff to deliver groceries to residents.
Huanggang resident Bai Ling said on Friday that all supermarkets and pharmacies had closed and residents could only buy groceries online.
“My family’s house is on the street and has not yet been sealed off, but my cousin, who lives in a residential compound, told me that the exits have been blocked by cars, preventing people from going out,” she said.
Community staff had also been going to door-to-door, registering the information of residents, she said.
Zhangwan district in the city of Shiyan took similar action on Thursday, declaring a “wartime control order”. The authorities locked all residential buildings and banned anyone besides medical workers, officials and gas, telecommunications or grocery delivery staff from entering or leaving.
“We had no choice but to take special measures in special times,” the district government said. “We ask all residents in the district to hang on for another 14 days together, protect and quarantine yourselves.”
“There are also officials on duty on the streets, if they see pedestrians, they will persuade you to go home and not to go outside,” one Shiyan resident said.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said that China needed more than hardware to overhaul its system.
“If you look at the hardware, the infrastructure, the [health] response and surveillance capacities, the system seems to be fine ... but the capacity is not just about better equipment or new buildings, it’s also about the personnel and the protocols, systems and institutions that are also essential for the operation of the system,” Huang said.
He said that local systems could be overwhelmed in a big outbreak and response systems needed to be prepared for that possibility.
Huang also said that problems in the flow of information between local health authorities and the government and between national health authorities and the central leadership might have slowed the official response.
“There are two problems – the lack of transparency and the lack of action. Fixing that you will have to consider some changes in the upward accountability structure and the concern for social political stability,” he said.
“Without some fundamental reform in these areas we are likely to see the same mistake being repeated again and again.”
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This article Coronavirus: Xi Jinping calls for overhaul of China’s health crisis response system first appeared on South China Morning Post