On Sunday, more than 10,000 families gathered in Wuhan for a banquet, sharing dishes including spicy duck necks and braised prawns, in a tradition the government had held for years to mark the Lunar New Year.
Days later, Beijing made the unprecedented decision to lock down the city of 11 million people, shutting public transportation, movie theaters, internet cafes and other cultural centers, in an effort to contain the spread of a virus that has killed at least 18 people.
Some medical professionals questioned the timing of the mass gathering.
“Having a big event like this at a time of an epidemic amounts to a lack of basic common sense,” said Li Xinzhou, a respiratory specialist in Shanghai.
As China tries to control a coronavirus outbreak that has spread halfway around the world since it was first disclosed in December, it is also facing questions about the pace at which the outbreak was confronted.
Wuhan and the nearby cities of Huanggang and Ezhou, which collectively hold more than 20 million people, have been put on lockdown, while authorities in the Chinese gambling center of Macau said they were weighing closures of its casinos. Five other cities in the province of Hubei, of which Wuhan is the capital, also enacted travel restrictions late Thursday.
Such drastic measures indicate that the virus, for which no cure has yet been found, is spreading faster than previously anticipated.
A worker sanitizes the square in front of the Hankou Railway Station, closed after the city of Wuhan was locked down.
Many international health experts have credited Chinese officials with responding more quickly, and with greater transparency, than they did during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, 17 years ago, which claimed nearly 800 lives and infected more than 8,000 people world-wide.
But people close to the Wuhan government, including advisers and business executives with which it consults, said officials remained overly optimistic that the outbreak would be contained while they focused on other priorities, including annual Communist Party meetings there.
In an interview on Tuesday with China’s state broadcaster China Central Television, Wuhan Mayor
said local authorities “weren’t on alert enough” when they organized Sunday’s banquet. Wuhan authorities didn’t respond to requests from The Wall Street Journal for further comment.
The same day as the banquet, Beijing dispatched a group of the nation’s prominent epidemiologists to Wuhan. They determined the virus—initially spread from animals—had been transferred between people for some time, but didn’t say for how long, before authorities publicly acknowledged such human-to-human contact was likely, increasing its potential danger.
The group’s leader,
said in a state-television interview that it had found that more than a dozen medical staff in Wuhan had contracted the virus from one patient, though he didn’t say when that had occurred.
The virus has sickened more than 600 people in mainland China and a handful in countries including Thailand, South Korea and the U.S. It is fast becoming one of the biggest crises and political tests for President
who has portrayed China as a responsible world power amid heightened tensions with the U.S. and other Western countries.
To contain the surge in infections, Mr. Xi this week ordered the travel bans for cities hit hard by the virus, an official familiar with the president’s role in the decision said.
The World Health Organization says the scale of such a shutdown is without precedent and it remains to be seen how effective the measures will be. The WHO declined on Thursday to declare the outbreak a global public-health emergency, citing a limited number of cases abroad and efforts under way to bring it under control.
Chinese officials said Mr. Xi is determined to avoid a repeat of SARS. But some privately say his top-down style of leadership has also made lower-level bureaucrats wary of acting decisively on their own.
“Xi’s leadership style has effectively instilled a ‘wait and see’ attitude within the bureaucracy,” said
a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. That, he said, “is leading to slow and hesitant responses from government officials as they wait for pronouncements from Beijing before taking action.”
Chinese social media in December made the first references to the virus, prompting health authorities in Wuhan to confirm on Dec. 31 that 27 people had been sickened and to close a wholesale wild-animal market where the virus was suspected to have originated. Within a week, reported infections surged to 44.
China informed the WHO of the initial outbreak soon after it was discovered. By early January, Chinese health authorities identified the genome of the virus and determined it was in the same family of pathogens as SARS, a notable breakthrough for the domestic scientific community.
Wuhan authorities didn’t step up public warnings about the virus, but around the start of the year temporarily detained eight people they alleged had spread false information about the virus, without giving any evidence. For weeks, local officials insisted there was a low risk the virus could be passed from human to human.
When the city’s top leaders met over several days this month for annual policy meetings—typically held to summarize the government’s accomplishments for the year and lay out goals for the next—, the virus wasn’t on the official agenda, even though some officials privately questioned the city’s response.
“Everyone was blindly optimistic,” an adviser to the Wuhan government said. The focus at the time, the adviser said, was to maintain the facade of stability.
“This is where they truly messed up,” potentially missing an opportunity to more easily contain the outbreak while the sessions were under way, said
a Chinese politics expert at the University of Chicago.
Soon, hospitals throughout Wuhan and nearby cities were reporting more cases to the National Health Committee in Beijing, a cabinet-level group. The surge was serious enough that the committee sent the epidemiologists to Wuhan on Sunday.
The group, led by Mr. Zhong, a prominent veteran of the SARS epidemic, concluded that the situation was more severe than local authorities had publicly acknowledged, people familiar with the matter said.
The group decided authorities should shut the city, but provincial and municipal officials had no authority to do so, so the team had to return to Beijing, where Mr. Xi eventually signed off on the measure.
He issued a directive on Monday urging authorities to “take effective measures to resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic” and instructed the central government to set up a task force to tackle the outbreak.
The Wuhan lockdown was announced Thursday morning, less than a day after the senior-most Hubei province officials spent the evening at a Wuhan concert hall enjoying a gala. Some people flashed resentment when the lockdown became public.
“If measures had been taken in advance, there would be no need to lock down the city,” one user on the Weibo microblogging site wrote. “With the city being blocked now, it shows the situation is already out of control.”
—Lekai Liu contributed to this article.
Write to Lingling Wei at firstname.lastname@example.org and Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com
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