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Taking credit, avoiding blame? Xi Jinping’s absence from coronavirus frontline

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has been noticeably absent from public view as his government scrambles to fight the coronavirus outbreak that claimed more than 400 lives and infected more than 20,000 people.

His most recent public appearance was on 28 January when he met the director general of the World Health Organization in Beijing and said he was “personally commanding” the response to the outbreak.

Yet Xi does not appear to be the face of the government’s fight against the virus. He has not been pictured visiting hospitals, doctors or patients. In the days after officials acknowledged the gravity of the crisis it was the premier, Li Keqiang, who visited Wuhan, the city at the centre of the outbreak. While photos of a long convoy prompted rumours over the weekend that Xi was on his way to Wuhan, he has yet to turn up.

Quick guide

What is the coronavirus and should we be worried?

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals, or possibly seafood. New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are examples.

What other coronaviruses have there been?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals.

What are the symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission. As of 3 February, 361 people have died in China, and one in the Philippines. Confirmed infections in China are 17,238, and the official Chinese figures include Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. Outside of China, infections stand at more than 150.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 160 were tested and found negative. The actual number to have contracted the virus could be far higher as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

How worried are the experts?

There were fears that the coronavirus might spread more widely during the week-long lunar new year holidays, which start on 24 January, when millions of Chinese travel home to celebrate, but the festivities have largely been cancelled and Wuhan and other Chinese cities are in lockdown.

At what point should you go to the doctor if you have a cough, say?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that there is generally no need to visit a doctor for a cough unless it is persistent or you are having other symptoms such as chest pain, difficulty breathing or you feel very unwell.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. It increases the likelihood that the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern on Thursday evening. The key concerns are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital.

Sarah Boseley Health editor and Hannah Devlin 

Instead, state media have portrayed him as in command from a distance, issuing pledges to overcome the “devil virus” and approving measures such as the deployment of 1,400 military medics at a new hospital in Wuhan. On Monday, Xi chaired a meeting of the Communist party’s ruling politburo standing committee and ordered officials to work together to improve the country’s emergency response system and public health regime.

For a leader whose face and words decorate banners and signs across the country and feature in state media daily, the low-key approach during a time of national crisis seems out of character.

“This is clearly one of the most serious issues to confront China in decades. Xi has heavily centralised power in himself, cultivated a populist image, and vested himself with the title of ‘people’s leader’,” said Carl Minzner, a professor of Chinese law and politics at Fordham University. “Failing to publicly address the issue would seem likely to harm his populist image.”

Some experts say the approach may be deliberate. Xi, who has aggressively centralised power and made himself the core of the Communist party, may be more at risk to the political fallout of the coronavirus. Local government officials have so far borne the brunt of criticism, but as the central government handles the crisis more scrutiny will be placed on top officials.

“If the situation improves, he will take credit. If it worsens the blame will be pinned on Li Keqiang,” said Vivienne Shue, a professor of contemporary China studies at the University of Oxford China Centre.

Some of the central-level efforts were approved by Xi, such as a lockdown in Wuhan and surrounding cities when there was not enough medical supplies and hospital capacity to cope with the number of patients.

Xi’s absence from the scene has been noticed. “He has not visited places hard hit by the virus,” Shue said. “This has been criticised in part because Xi claims to be the core of the leadership, the all-powerful leadership … and he doesn’t have the guts to go the epidemic-stricken areas.”

A post titled “What Xi Dada has been doing these days” on the site, a Chinese-language discussion forum hosted overseas, included a timeline of his meetings and directives given in relation to the virus.

“Maybe he’s already found a safe place to hide and quarantine himself,” a commentator said in response to the post. “Maybe he is with all those face masks that have gone missing in Wuhan,” another said, in reference to the city’s shortage.