Analysts warn failure to contain the coronavirus outbreak will lead to a “Chernobyl moment” for Chinese leadership, amid fears the virus could infect 60 per cent of the world’s population if left to spread unchecked.
On Thursday, Chinese president Xi Jinping announced an extra 2600 military medical personnel would be sent to Wuhan to treat patients taking the total number of reinforcements to 4000.
It comes amid growing criticism of Chinese authorities from both inside and outside the country, with many experts predicting the virus could become China’s “Chernobyl moment”, reports news.com.au.
The 1986 nuclear disaster in what is now Ukraine was exacerbated by a failure to admit mistakes, a culture of secrecy among leaders and incompetent handling of the fallout.
The Chinese province at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak recorded 242 deaths on Wednesday, the BBC reported.
It was the biggest daily rise in deaths in Hubei since the flu-like virus emerged in the province’s capital, Wuhan, in December.
There was also a huge increase in the number of cases, with 14,840 people diagnosed with Covid-19, reported the BBC.
Hubei has started using a broader definition to diagnose people, which accounts for most of the rise in cases. China sacked two top officials in Hubei province hours after the new figures were revealed.
President Xi has kept a low profile during the virus outbreak, leading to speculation he is trying to create layers of bureaucracy on which to lay the blame.
But in China and abroad the demand for clear information is growing. Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and leader of opposition party Demosisto, Joshua Wong, said “by covering up the severity of pandemic with force & fear, #China has turned whole crisis into the Chernobyl disaster of the 21st century.
• ‘I never really felt unwell’: What it’s like to have coronavirus
• Disturbing footage shows suspected coronavirus victims being rounded up and quarantined
• Coronavirus: Mysterious bat cave in Chinese wilderness could hold key
• Premium – How coronavirus has affected the New Zealand economy so far
“China’s still clamping down on coronavirus coverage as cases surge day by day,” he tweeted.
“Under the surface, we see the powerlessness of power. Burnished by the personality cult, this rigid regime rules the people with fear and distrust. Beijing’s iron-fist control on citizenry also makes it unresponsive to social grievance.”
University of Chicago political scientist Dali Yang said “this is clearly a crisis of enormous proportions”.
“Failure … will be blamed on the system and especially on Xi, who’s staked out his personal leadership role,” he told the South China Morning Post.
“It will be a crisis of Chernobyl proportions, especially because we will have to contend with the virus for years to come,” Yang said.
“Those who have sustained losses, in particular, will be asking questions, as has happened before in the aftermath of a crisis.”
60 per cent of world could become infected
So far nearly 60,000 people have contracted the disease that has been renamed COVID-19.
The vast majority are in mainland China with 1367 deaths among 59,804 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei.
On Wednesday and Thursday World Health Organisation (WHO) experts met in Geneva to discuss the global response.
Hong Kong’s leading public health epidemiologist, Prof Gabriel Leung, told The Guardian that the main question was how many people each person can infect.
Most experts thought each person would go on to transmit the virus to about 2.5 other people leading to an “attack rate” of 60-80 per cent if the virus was not contained, he said.
“Sixty per cent of the world’s population is an awfully big number,” Leung said.
WHO adviser Ira Longini also estimated there could eventually be billions more infections than the current official tally of about 60,000.
He estimates each person passes the disease to between two and three people, and even if transmission was reduced by half around 30 per cent of the world’s population could still catch it.
“Unless the transmissibility changes, surveillance and containment can only work so well,” he told Reuters.
“Isolating cases and quarantining contacts is not going to stop this virus.”
Fears have been raised about the spread of the disease in the UK following confirmation of a ninth case in London after it was first detected in York and Brighton.
The city of nearly nine million is a key transport hub and home to four major airports that could spread the disease quickly around the world.