US cit­i­zen’s death fu­els con­cern about re­sponse to virus

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY RAY­MOND ZHONG AND ED­WARD WONG

A U.S. cit­i­zen died from the coro­n­avirus in Wuhan, China, Amer­i­can of­fi­cials said on Satur­day. It was the first known Amer­i­can death from the ill­ness, and was likely to add to diplo­matic fric­tion over Beijing’s re­sponse to the epi­demic.

The death is also cer­tain to raise ques­tions over whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and the State Depart­ment in par­tic­u­lar have taken suf­fi­cient ac­tion to en­sure the safety of Amer­i­cans in China and to aid in the evac­u­a­tion of those who want to leave.

In a state­ment, the State Depart­ment took a de­fen­sive tone, say­ing that since Jan. 29, it had evac­u­ated around 850 peo­ple, most of them Amer­i­cans, on five charter flights out of Wuhan.

The agency said it had “no higher pri­or­ity than the wel­fare and safety of U.S. cit­i­zens abroad,” but there are no cur­rent plans to con­duct ad­di­tional evac­u­a­tion flights, even as some Amer­i­cans in other parts of China have been ask­ing for the U.S. govern­ment to evac­u­ate them.

Re­la­tions be­tween Washington and Beijing have been tense for years over is­sues in­clud­ing trade, tech­nol­ogy and hu­man rights. While Chi­nese of­fi­cials have touted the im­por­tance of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion to com­bat the virus, doubts have arisen in re­cent days about China’s will­ing­ness to ac­cept a help­ing hand – par­tic­u­larly from the United States.

Al­though some Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have pri­vately ex­pressed skep­ti­cism over China’s han­dling of the out­break, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump him­self lav­ished praise on Chi­nese lead­ers Fri­day. Trump told re­porters in Washington that he had spo­ken with Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping of China on the tele­phone late Thurs­day. “They’re work­ing re­ally hard, and I think they’re do­ing a very pro­fes­sional job,” he said.

Trump has said of­ten that he likes and ad­mires Xi, and he has toned down his at­tacks on China since the two sides signed an agree­ment last month to halt a dam­ag­ing trade war that Trump started in 2018.

Few de­tails about the Amer­i­can, who died on Thurs­day, were im­me­di­ately avail­able. Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Em­bassy in Beijing, the per­son was 60 years old and died at Jiny­in­tan Hospi­tal in Wuhan, the in­land me­trop­o­lis at the cen­ter of the epi­demic. Two peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter said the per­son was a woman and had un­der­ly­ing health con­di­tions.

It was not clear whether the woman had tried to leave the city on any of the flights or­ga­nized by the State Depart­ment, which have evac­u­ated diplo­mats and other Amer­i­can cit­i­zens from Wuhan, Beijing and other parts of China.

“We offer our sin­cer­est con­do­lences to the fam­ily on their loss,” a spokesman for the U.S. Em­bassy in Beijing said. “Out of re­spect for the fam­ily’s pri­vacy, we have no fur­ther com­ment.”

Word of the death spread as frus­tra­tions over Beijing’s han­dling of the epi­demic mounted within China and sur­faced at the diplo­matic level as well. The virus has killed at least 700 peo­ple in China, sick­ened thou­sands more and spread across the globe.

For more than a month, the U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion have been of­fer­ing to send a team of ex­perts to China to ob­serve the out­break and help if pos­si­ble. But no in­vi­ta­tion has come.

The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which made a sim­i­lar offer about two weeks ago, ap­peared to have faced the same cold shoul­der. But the agency said Satur­day that it had iden­ti­fied a team of ex­perts to go to China and that the team’s leader would go Mon­day or Tues­day, with the rest of the team fol­low­ing later.

Cur­rent and former health of­fi­cials and diplo­mats said they be­lieved the re­luc­tance came from China’s top lead­ers, who do not want the world to think they need out­side help.

Within China, pub­lic dis­con­tent about the govern­ment’s re­sponse to the cri­sis reached an ex­tra­or­di­nary peak on Fri­day af­ter the death of Dr. Li Wen­liang, who had warned his col­leagues early on about the new virus but was rep­ri­manded for il­le­gally spread­ing ru­mors.

Af­ter Li’s death, griev­ing in­ter­net users posted mes­sages ex­press­ing anger over his treat­ment and de­mand­ing free­dom of speech – un­heard-of in China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cials said Fri­day that they would send a team from the pow­er­ful anti-cor­rup­tion com­mit­tee to in­ves­ti­gate the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Li’s death. Chi­nese state news me­dia re­ported Satur­day that the govern­ment was also send­ing two se­nior of­fi­cials to Wuhan to re­in­force ef­forts to bring the out­break un­der con­trol.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear if the ap­point­ments on Satur­day amounted to a reshuf­fling of the lo­cal lead­er­ship or were sim­ply an ef­fort to re­in­force of­fi­cials on the front line. Still, it ap­peared to be an ac­knowl­edg­ment that au­thor­i­ties in Wuhan had been over­whelmed.

Ja­pan said Satur­day that one of its cit­i­zens had died in a Wuhan hospi­tal from a sus­pected case of the coro­n­avirus. But the Ja­panese For­eign Min­istry said that based on in­for­ma­tion it re­ceived from Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties, it could not con­firm whether the man, who was in his 60s, had been in­fected with the new virus. The min­istry called the cause of death vi­ral pneu­mo­nia.

China’s For­eign Min­istry said this past week that as of noon on Thurs­day, 19 for­eign na­tion­als in the coun­try had been con­firmed to be in­fected with the coro­n­avirus. Two of them had re­cov­ered and were dis­charged from the hospi­tal. The other 17 were still re­ceiv­ing treat­ment.

As the virus spreads, China is con­fronting a grow­ing sense of iso­la­tion – a stark re­ver­sal for the coun­try af­ter decades of eco­nomic and diplo­matic in­te­gra­tion with the rest of the world. Many coun­tries, in­clud­ing the United States, have placed en­try re­stric­tions on trav­el­ers from China. Air­lines have can­celed flights. Fears of the virus have fu­eled an­tiChi­nese racism in some parts of the world.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials have crit­i­cized the United States both for evac­u­at­ing Amer­i­cans from China and for im­pos­ing travel curbs, say­ing that such moves could spread panic. On Fri­day, Trump and Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo ap­peared to be try­ing to ease ten­sions.

Pom­peo said the United States was pre­pared to spend up to $100 mil­lion to help China and other coun­tries fight the epi­demic. Pom­peo also said the State Depart­ment had helped trans­port about 18 tons of do­nated med­i­cal sup­plies, in­clud­ing masks, gowns and gauze, to China in the past week.

CHI­ANG YING-YING AP

In New Taipei City, Tai­wan, on Satur­day, epi­demic pre­ven­tion work­ers board the cruise ship Su­per­Star Aquarius docked at Keelung port. The ship had been de­nied the right to dock by Ja­panese har­bor au­thor­i­ties. As the virus spreads, China is con­fronting a grow­ing sense of iso­la­tion.

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