The ruling Chinese Communist Party said on Tuesday it has removed two high-ranking health officials from the central province of Hubei as
the death toll in the coronavirus epidemic passed 1,000.
More than 95 percent of the 1,018 deaths reported from confirmed coronavirus cases were in the province, whose officials have come under fire, even on China's tightly controlled internet, for actively covering up the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak in the provincial capital Wuhan in December.
Zhang Jin, Communist Party secretary of the Hubei health commission, and its director Liu Yingzi have been removed from their posts after President Xi Jinping sent a key ally to the province to investigate the handling of the epidemic.
Former Hubei party deputy Chen Yixin, who is now secretary general of the powerful Political and Legal Affairs Commission in charge of law enforcement, has been sent from Beijing as deputy head of a Beijing-appointed task force in charge of controlling the epidemic, state broadcaster CCTV reported.
Chen has reportedly set up a system under which every district must file hourly situation reports to the provincial government, with incentives and accountability mechanisms built in, state media reported.
Public anger at the lack of transparency reached boiling point with the death from coronavirus of whistleblowing Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was questioned and harassed by police for "spreading rumors," after speaking out about a SARS-like virus in the early days of the epidemic, when more could have been done to contain it.
Activists recently penned an open letter to premier Li Keqiang, calling on the country's cabinet, the State Council, to order officials in Hubei to apologize publicly to Li and seven other medical staff accused of rumor-mongering.
Wuhan Communist Party secretary Ma Guoqiang admitted last week that officials could have halted the epidemic if they had imposed travel restrictions sooner. Some five million people are believed to have fled the city before quarantine restrictions were imposed.
China remained mostly closed for business on Tuesday, as officials extended the Lunar New Year holiday people and restricted the movements of huge swathes of China's population.
To assuage online criticism that a hastily built 10,000-bed hospital is more like a concentration camp than a place of healing, officials released social media videos of patients square-dancing and practicing Tai Chi outside the facility, which was thrown together from prefabricated units in just 10 days.
No food, hot water or medical care
The hospital is now full, and officials have continued to requisition large venues as isolation camps for "suspected" coronavirus cases.
But family members of people sent there said the facilities offer no food, hot water or medical care.
"[Our relative] has been there a whole day and there has been no food offered," a relative of one patient told RFA. "He went in at 4.00 a.m. and hasn't eaten for a whole day. When I brought food to the door for him, the doorman wouldn't accept it."
"There was no hot water, either, and he received no injections from medical staff," the family member said.
Footage has also emerged of the personal belongings of vacationing students unceremoniously dumped outside dorm buildings that had been requisitioned as quarantine facilities.
Meanwhile, there are indications that the coronavirus may incubate for much longer than the 14-day period currently used to manage people under quarantine restrictions.
According to health officials in the eastern province of Shaanxi, a 65-year-old woman who returned to the provincial capital of Taiyuan on Dec. 25 from Wuhan was admitted to a county hospital and diagnosed with coronavirus on Feb. 3, some 40 days later.
Recent research by Chinese virologist Zhong Nan also indicated that people can carry the coronavirus for up to 24 days without even suffering a fever.
Nanjing-based social media user Su Nan said that the spread of the disease is almost impossible to prevent with such a long incubation period, during which carriers may be completely unaware they have the virus.
A resident of Wuhan surnamed Wang said she diagnosed with coronavirus after developing a cough and a fever, but had no symptoms in the early stages of the infection, and was unable to gauge how long she had been infected for.
State media paint rosier picture
Once she was sent to one of the newly built hospitals, she found the facility didn't measure up to its portrayals by official media.
"There's no medicine for me to take and no hot water," Wang said. "I haven't received any medication or any injection."
"The toilets are a 200-meter trek away, outside. Some people are much sicker than I am," she said. "There is no isolation, just a partition between us."
Elsewhere in China, people from Hubei said they were being refused accommodation. The hometowns of Chinese nationals are shown on their national ID cards.
"It's because we are visiting from Hubei. I had a four-year-old child with me but that didn't make any difference," one woman told RFA after being denied a hotel room in the southern city of Guangzhou, where she has exceeded the official quarantine period of 14 days.
"People who have exceeded the quarantine period should be allowed to stay in any hotel," she said.
Faced with increasingly outspoken criticism over the epidemic on social media, government censors have moved to shut down groups and accounts on popular platforms, as well as deleting posts, Reuters reported.
"Xi Jinping has made it clear that he expects efforts to strengthen 'the guidance of public opinion' to be increased," Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told the agency.
"We've already seen around 300 more journalists dispatched to Wuhan and surrounding areas to report on the outbreak. It's highly likely their brief is to paint a rosier picture of the government's relief efforts rather than engage in any muckraking or critical reporting."
A notice circulated by the Cyberspace Administration of China last week called on audio and video platforms to step up control on "harmful information and rumor" related to the coronavirus epidemic.
Reported by Fong Tak-ho and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.