Beijing • China’s ruling Communist Party faced public anger and recrimination Friday over the death of a doctor who was threatened by police after trying to sound the alarm about the new coronavirus back in December. The death toll, meanwhile, rose to nearly 640, and the number of people infected worldwide climbed past 31,400.
Cruise ship passengers faced more woe as Japan reported 41 new cases on one quarantined vessel and turned away another. President Xi Jinping spoke with President Donald Trump and urged the U.S. to “respond reasonably" to the outbreak, echoing complaints that some countries are overreacting by restricting Chinese travelers.
A look at the latest developments:
Treatment of whistleblower doctor investigated
Following an online uproar over the government's treatment of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Communist Party struck a conciliatory note, saying it is sending a team to “fully investigate relevant issues raised by the public.”
Li, a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, was one of eight medical professionals in Wuhan who tried to warn colleagues and others when the government did not. He wrote on his Weibo account that on Dec. 30 he saw a test sample that indicated the presence of a coronavirus similar to SARS, which killed nearly 800 people in a 2002-03 outbreak.
Li said that after he reported seven patients had contracted the virus, he was visited on Jan. 3 by police, who forced him to sign a statement admitting to having spread falsehoods and warning him of punishment if he continued. He fell ill with the disease while treating patients, and his death was confirmed early Friday.
Even the staunchly pro-government Global Times newspaper said the whistleblowers' treatment "was evidence of local authorities' incompetence to tackle a contagious and deadly virus."
The episode has raised longstanding complaints that party officials lie about or cover up disease outbreaks, chemical spills, dangerous consumer products or financial frauds. Chinese citizens can be jailed on charges of rumor-mongering or making trouble.
Most of the deaths from the virus have been of older people with existing health problems, but disease specialists said Li’s work — eye doctors sit very close to their patients during examinations — may have subjected him to an extra large dose of the virus that made his illness more severe.
Cruise ship woes
Japan confirmed 41 new cases of the virus on the quarantined Diamond Princess, adding to 20 escorted off the ship earlier. The nearly 3,700 passengers and crew still on board remain under 14-day quarantine.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said foreign passengers on another ship, Holland America's Westerdam, won't be allowed into Japan. He said suspected virus patients were on board. The ship, with more than 2,000 people, was near Okinawa and was seeking another port, said Overseas Travel Agency official Mie Matsubara.
“We are getting desperate,” she said. “We hope we can go somewhere so that passengers can land.”
Xi, Trump talk virus response, trade
China's state media quoted Xi as saying China has launched “a people’s war against the virus.”
“We hope the U.S. side can assess the epidemic in a calm manner and adopt and adjust its response measures in a reasonable way," he added. Beijing has complained that the U.S. is flying its citizens out of Wuhan but not providing any assistance to China.
Trump tweeted that “great discipline is taking place in China” and Xi is leading strongly in the fight against the virus.
All but one the deaths in the outbreak have been in China. China's National Health Commission said about 4,800 of those being treated, or nearly 17 percent, are in serious condition. The vast majority of the infected are in China; roughly 290 others are in about two dozen other countries, including Japan, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea.
The U.S. has reported 12 cases.
Wuhan residents say getting help not easy
Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, has added thousands of beds by building two new hospitals and converting gyms and other spaces into places where patients can be held in isolation. Thousands of military and civilian medical workers have been sent in.
Still, those inside the quarantine zone of some 50 million residents speak of a medical system completely overwhelmed.
Chen Jiaxin, 22, said by telephone from Wuhan that his father fell ill on Jan. 28 but had to return home because no hospital would accept him. When he called for an ambulance after his father's fever spiked on Thursday, Chen said, he was told 400 people were ahead of him and “we were just told to wait and wait.”
Mother-of-two Rong Qin, 32, said that her 67-year-old father is feeling sick and is awaiting test results, but that she was told by local officials that even those with a positive diagnosis have to wait for beds.
“What I am hoping now is to put my father in a public quarantine facility so that he doesn’t pass the infection on to other family members," she said.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press writer Foster Klug in Yokohama, Japan, contributed to this report.