China's Communist Party leadership called the month-old coronavirus epidemic a "major test" Monday as other nations escalated efforts to isolate China, unnerving China's stock market, depressing global oil prices and raising new anxiety about the world's most populous country.
The growing global move to effectively cut off China's 1.4 billion people came as government officials reported the new coronavirus strain had killed more in mainland China than the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, confirming it as one of the deadliest epidemics in recent Chinese history.
Many leading infectious disease experts say the outbreak is likely to become a pandemic, defined as an ongoing epidemic on two or more continents, and that stringent anti-contagion restrictions may have come too late.
"There's no sign that it's getting better," said Leo Poon, division head of the public health laboratory sciences department at the University of Hong Kong. "We don't see a pattern of decline, and that's a problem."
With the official death rising to 361, President Xi Jinping of China called Monday for all officials to make reducing the number of infections and deaths a top priority.
Xi presided over a meeting of senior Communist Party leaders at which they acknowledged shortcomings in policies on public health and emergency management, according to China's official news agency. The leaders called the coronavirus epidemic "a major test of China's system and capacity for governance."
Xinhua quoted Xi as saying that officials who resist orders and "lack boldness" could be punished — suggesting that at least some regions in China may have balked at devoting resources and personnel to stopping the contagion.
China had 17,205 confirmed infections as of Sunday, and more than 160 cases have been diagnosed in two dozen other countries, including 11 in the U.S. During the SARS outbreak, China had 349 deaths and 5,327 cases.
Government figures show that confirmed coronavirus infections are surging by more than 2,000 daily.
Some deaths still go unreported, and many residents in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak in central Hubei Province, say they believe the true number of deaths across China may be higher than the official tally because many of the ill have been turned away by overstretched hospitals. Several residents said they had heard of people dying at home.
The commonly accepted need for isolating suspected cases collided with anger, confusion and recrimination between China and other governments.
In the U.S., there were scenes of uncertainty at the few airports still permitted to receive flights from China, as the first federally required quarantine since the smallpox era a half century ago took effect.
Russia, which shares a 2,600-mile border with China, suspended all passenger-rail links. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte exhorted citizens to "stop this xenophobia thing" amid signs there were acts of discrimination against people of Chinese descent.
Many airlines have suspended flights to China, and governments have barred Chinese travelers or anyone who has traveled recently to China, despite the WHO's statement that the closure of international borders was unnecessary. The U.S. has recommended that Americans put off travel to China.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, criticized the U.S. response, adding that, "the U.S. government has not provided any substantive help to the Chinese side yet."
In an online news briefing, Hua noted that the U.S. was "the first to withdraw its consulate staff from Wuhan, the first to suggest the partial withdrawal of embassy staff and the first to announce a ban on entry by Chinese citizens."
"What the U.S. has done could create and spread panic," Hua said.