China’s Xi says epidemic ‘grim,’ calls for action on economy

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In this Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, photo, a woman using a trolley bag to collect foods distributed by volunteers outside her home in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. South Korea and China both reported a rise in new virus cases on Sunday, as the South Korean prime minister warned that the fast-spreading outbreak linked to a local church and a hospital in the country’s southeast had entered a “more grave stage.” (Chinatopix via AP)

BEIJING (AP) — Warning that China’s virus epidemic is “still grim and complex,” President Xi Jinping called Sunday for more efforts to stop the outbreak, revive industry and prevent the disease from disrupting spring planting of crops.

Xi defended the ruling Communist Party’s response as “timely and effective” in a video conference with officials in charge of anti-disease work, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Xi sounded a note of caution in the face of hopes abroad that the disease that has killed more than 2,400 people since December might be under control. He said the situation is at a “critical stage” and called on officials to “resolutely curb the spread of the epidemic.”

“The current epidemic situation is still grim and complex,” Xinhua cited Xi as saying. “Prevention and control are at the most critical stage.”

The ruling party is trying to strike a difficult balance between stopping the virus and reviving China’s vast manufacturing and other industries. Most of the world’s second-largest economy has been shut down since late January in the most sweeping anti-disease measures ever imposed and are only gradually reopening.

Forecasters say China might rebound quickly if the outbreak can be controlled by the end of March. But they say this quarter’s economic output will shrink by as much as 1% from the quarter ending in December after Beijing extended the Lunar New Year holiday to keep factories and offices closed and told the public to avoid traveling.

Concern is growing that the disease might be spreading in South Korea and other countries, instead of only affecting people who visited China and others who had close contact with them.

Xi said the epidemic is a health emergency with the “fastest spread” and “most difficult prevention and control” in China since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, according to Xinhua.

“For us, this is a crisis and a big test,” Xi was cited as saying.

The report made no mention of criticism from members of the public that officials delayed taking action against the disease and might be concealing details its impact, but Xi was cited as saying “all work arrangements are timely” and anti-disease measures are effective.

The meeting included officials of the Cabinet and the group headed by Premier Li Keqiang, China’s No. 2 leader, that was formed to oversee anti-disease efforts, according to Xinhua. It said officials from Hubei, the central province where the outbreak began, also participated.

Invoking the martial theme the ruling party has given the anti-disease campaign, Xi called on them to “deploy medical forces” to “cut off the source of infection,” especially in the capital, Beijing. At the same time, he said they must help factories and other companies reopen and make sure low-income workers are employed.

The president said “low-risk areas” in China should adjust disease-control measures to “fully restore production” while higher-risk areas keep their focus on epidemic prevention.

The government previously promised tax breaks, subsidies and other aid to entrepreneurs and farmers to cushion the blow of the most sweeping anti-disease controls ever imposed.

Forecasters say it will be at least mid-March before manufacturing and other industries return to normal after the government cut off most access to Wuhan, the city at the center of the outbreak, imposed travel controls nationwide and closed factories, restaurants, shopping malls and other businesses. That disrupted the flow of supplies to farmers and factories.

Xi mentioned possible use of monetary policy and more cuts in taxes and fees to support job creation but announced no specific initiatives.

“We must promptly solve the outstanding problems that affect spring plowing and organize production, circulation and supply of materials to ensure production does not miss the farming time,” Xi was cited as saying.

Local officials previously were ordered to make sure food supplies flow to populous Chinese cities following panic buying after the shutdown of access to Wuhan. Villages have been banned from setting up roadblocks to keep away outsiders and possible infection.

The government must “actively organize” production of vegetables, livestock and poultry and “unblock transportation channels,” the president said.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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