Anger mounts over government response at epidemic epicentre

Many Chinese netizens have been incensed by what they perceived as a series of errors at a televised press conference Sunday by local officials at the heart of the new virus outbreak (AFP Photo/NOEL CELIS) (AFP)

Beijing (AFP) - Chinese officials at the epicentre of a health crisis are coming under fire for incompetence and being ridiculed for not properly wearing protective masks as anger mounts over the handling of a deadly virus.

Many Chinese netizens were incensed by what they perceived as a series of errors at a televised press conference Sunday by three local officials at the heart of the new virus outbreak.

Governor of central Hubei province Wang Xiaodong held the press conference without wearing a mask -- in violation of the provincial capital Wuhan's own rules mandating masks in public spaces.

Meanwhile the mayor of Wuhan was wearing his mask incorrectly by having it on inside out, pointed out Chinese users on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform.

"If the mayor doesn't even know how to wear a mask, how will everyday people know?" criticised one user.

"Incompetent and irresponsible politicians," wrote another in a scathing comment about the press briefing.

The comments are a rare instance of public anger outpacing the army of online censors in China, where criticism of government figures is usually scrubbed.

By Monday afternoon, a hashtag on the press briefing had more than 680 million views on Weibo.

Online users also zeroed in on Wang's repeated fumble of Hubei's annual mask production -- giving three revisions to his answer from 10.8 billion to 1.8 billion, to 1.08 million.

"As the governor of Hubei province, how can you not know how many masks Hubei province produces?" asked one incredulous user.

Central Hubei province is at the heart of China's new virus outbreak, which has killed at least 81 people and infected more than 2,700 people across the country and has spread overseas, including Thailand, the United States, and Australia.

"We also feel very distressed and very guilty, and we also very much blame ourselves," said Wang at Sunday's press briefing.

In Hubei, Chinese authorities have stopped public transport in at least 18 cities in a bid to contain the deadly virus, while putting the capital -- a city of 11 million inhabitants -- under effective quarantine.

Closing transport out of Wuhan was a "very difficult decision," added Zhou Xianwang, Wuhan's mayor, in an interview with state broadcaster CCTV on Monday.

"We may have blocked the disease, but we will all go down in history with a bad name," he admitted.

The mayor of Wuhan has already faced scrutiny for allowing a massive Lunar New Year banquet -- involving 40,000 families -- to take place despite the spread of the virus.