The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Monday said an annual meeting of the country's rubber-stamp parliament would be postponed amid the ongoing coronavirus epidemic, which has now seen nearly 80,000 cases confirmed globally, along with more than 2,500 deaths.
This year's annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), which sees nearly 3,000 delegates routinely nod through policies, approves budgets and confirms leadership changes decided in advance, had been scheduled for March 5 in Beijing.
But the NPC standing committee said after a meeting on Monday that it would be "appropriate" to postpone the session because of the epidemic, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
The NPC and its sister advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) would usually see thousands of delegates from across China converge on the Great Hall of the People and other Beijing venues over a three-week period, giving ample opportunity for fresh clusters of infection.
The announcement came as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Beijing reached 400, with four deaths reported.
More than 200 medical staff at hospitals in the capital were being held under clinical isolation and observation after being suspected of contracting COVID-19, health authorities said.
Beijing municipal health commission spokesman Gao Xiaojun said one cluster involved 34 confirmed cases at Beijing's Fuxing Hospital, including medical staff, nursing staff cleaners, patients and family members of patients.
There were also confirmed cases among patients and their visiting relatives at the People's Hospital attached to Peking University, Gao said.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for people to return to work as soon as possible.
"This is both a crisis and a big test for us," Xi said in comments translated by state news agency Xinhua.
Xi also called on people to return to work in an orderly manner, with each region adopting a customized approach based on the local situation, the report said.
'A second Wuhan'
Peking University graduate Wang Jiaqi said having people return to work would only help the virus to spread further.
"The epidemic is getting worse," Wang said. "Beijing could even become a second Wuhan," he said of the central Chinese city and capital of Hubei province where the outbreak first emerged, and where millions of people are still confined to their homes as the virus rages through the region.
"This disease is highly infectious, with such a high mortality rate in China," he said. "But I think more than 95 percent [of infections] were caused by the government, because the measures they took have consistently led to the virus spreading further and faster."
"I personally think this disaster is a political disaster, and it doesn't have that much to do with the epidemic itself," he said.
Chinese leaders have been widely criticized not just for seeking to shut down comments from medical workers who tried to warn the public about the virus in the early stages of the outbreak, but also for announcing a lockdown of Wuhan ahead of Lunar New Year, and then leaving enough time for an estimated five million people to leave the city.
Meanwhile, Beijing's National Center for the Performing Arts announced it would cancel all performances in March.
"In order to prevent the spread of infection by reducing gatherings of people ... [we] have decided to cancel all performances and other activities from March 1-31," the center said in a statement on its official website.
"The theater will continue to carry out comprehensive disinfection work in all areas, and work together to build a Great Wall of epidemic prevention!" it said in a statement dated Feb. 23.
The National Health Commission is currently rolling out a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treatment plan for COVID-19 patients, but without any obvious impact on the outcomes for those infected.
TCM for political effect
A medical worker who gave only her surname He said the move to use TCM, which was used in a bid to alleviate the symptoms of patients in the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, was likely a political move, rather than one informed by medical research.
"A large number of patients who have mild disease are being put straight onto antibiotics and proprietary TCM medicines, as well as regular antivirals, but these medicines aren't effective at all," she said.
"They even cause gastrointestinal side-effects and damage liver and kidney function," He said. "I have been worried all along that that this drug treatment regime will actually mak the milder cases into more serious cases, or worsen the more serious cases."
Sources told RFA that medical staff have been ordered to give TCM medicines to all coronavirus patients regardless of how seriously ill they are.
Anyone who doesn't comply is judged to be violating government policy and the spirit of epidemic prevention directives.
Abidol, a drug developed by the Shanghai Pharmaceutical Research Institute, has been linked to liver damage and shown to be ineffective in coronavirus cases, according to health authorities.
Commentator Lin Bin said the drive to use TCM to treat coronavirus patients comes all the way from the top, from Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi.
"The big guy is saying they need to ... promote the development of TCM, local officials don't have the medical expertise, and local health commissions are too afraid to speak out against it," Lin said.
"Nobody would dare, or [the police] will come knocking on their door for 'tea'," he said.
Repeated calls to the National Health Commission seeking comment on TCM treatment went without a response at the time of writing on Monday.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Siu-san and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.