As the World Health Organisation scrambles to garner details of fresh cases of coronavirus ~ the toll has touched a frightening 1700-plus ~ it is profoundly unfortunate for China that its President- for-life, Xi Jinping, should come under a cloud, albeit not dense but potentially damaging nonetheless. And the mirror has been held up by a publication of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Close to a month after the catastrophic outbreak, the ideologically tightlipped government has on Sunday released a speech that demonstrates that President Xi was leading the national effort to contain the coronavirus almost two weeks before he first issued public orders on the outbreak. In the net, the release of the speech has exposed him to yet more criticism as anger of the people mounts over the government’s initial response.

Yet this isn’t the juncture for bickering within; the Xi dispensation, it must be acknowledged, has been straining every nerve to address the pandemic that will likely have long-term effects on China’s economy. No one denies that there was a timeline between the alert and the frightful spread beyond the borders of China.

That gap remains unexplained, pre-eminently by Xi. Having said that, it must fairly be conceded that any administration needs time to put its counter action in place. A health affliction knows no nationality. The death in France has been greeted with a sense of shock and awe in Europe and to a degree that is far greater than the response of the Western bloc to the calamity that has shaken China to its foundations.

In the 3 February speech, Xi told China’s most powerful leaders that he had “continuously given verbal and written instructions” since January 7, and had personally ordered the quarantine of about 60 million people in Hubei province later that month. The full speech appeared on the website of Qiushi, the Communist Party’s top publication, on Saturday. The background to the canker, therefore, has no longer been swept under the carpet.

State media reports on January 7 or 8 didn’t include any remarks from Xi on the virus, a fact that was quickly pointed out by Chinese social media users. Xi publicly addressed the crisis for the first time on January 20 in a directive urging party committees and governments at all levels to take measures to curb the spread of the epidemic.

“From the first day of the Chinese New Year to the present, prevention and control of the epidemic situation was the issue I have been most concerned with,” Xi said, referring to a meeting of China’s seven most powerful leaders he chaired on January 25. Qiushi also separately published a timeline starting on January 7 of Xi’s involvement in the work to stop the epidemic. According to WHO, China had informed the agency on December 31 of a cluster of “pneumonia of unknown cause” detected in Wuhan.

The decision to publish the speech appeared to be an attempt to answer criticism that President Xi had withdrawn himself from public view as the outbreak worsened, though the revelation that he was in charge from the beginning could also place the blame for any fallout more squarely on his shoulders.