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Medical personnel arrive in Wuhan with medical supplies on a PLA transport aircraft on Thursday. Photo: China Daily via Reuters

Chinese military sends in fresh medical crews to coronavirus-hit Wuhan

  • Deployment follows orders from President Xi Jinping, source says
  • Mission could be a good test of the PLA’s ability to handle unconventional warfare, analyst says
The Chinese military is sending a fourth detachment of medical personnel to the coronavirus-hit city of Wuhan in central China, adding 2,600 specialists to take the total to 6,600, according to state media.

In all, 1,400 fresh medical workers arrived in Wuhan on Thursday morning, along with 11 military transport aircraft loaded with medical supplies, The PLA Daily reported.

The mobilisation of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel is several times bigger than the 1,200 medical troops the PLA sent to deal with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

Military observers said even more medical crews would be sent to help deal with a virus that has so far infected more than 60,000 people and killed over 1,300.

The decision to send fresh medical staff came after Chinese President Xi Jinping chaired a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s most powerful political body, on the crisis on Wednesday night, according to a military insider.

The insider, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the president ordered the military to mobilise an extra 2,600 troops.

“All the military branches immediately submitted lists of volunteers to the Central Military Commission [headed by Xi],” the insider said.

“The operation is exactly like a military response to a call-up to battle. The PLA is treating the coronavirus crisis as a non-traditional military battle.

“The frontline medical crews need more comrades to share the shifts. They are just like reinforcements during a war.”

The latest group was drawn from all branches of the military and theatre commands, according to the PLA Daily report.

They would be set to help treat 1,600 confirmed coronavirus patients at Hubei Maternity and Child Health Care Hospital and Wuhan Tongji Hospital, it said.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said sending PLA troops was the simplest and most effective way to tackle an epidemic because military personnel were easier to manage and better able to handle a crisis.

“The PLA has been well-trained and well-prepared to deal with any emergencies, including epidemics. It is part of their biological warfare training,” Zhou said.

“The new data indicated the situation in Hubei province, especially the epicentre Wuhan, has become more serious than the central government’s previous assessment, and it’s a must to control and stop it immediately,” Zhou said.

Chen Wei, a PLA major general and the military’s top virologist in biological warfare, has been leading a working team to Wuhan since late last month, according to Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. Chen’s top mission is to study new drugs to reduce the infection rate of medical staff working on the front line.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the crisis could be a good test of the PLA’s ability to handle unconventional warfare, similar to the role “live-fire drills” played in conventional warfare.

“[The military] has to be able to make deployments quickly in an emergency, as is the case with a large-scale war or battle,” Wong said.

“Governments in other countries have done the same in other epidemics.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Military sends more medical staff to reinforce operations in Wuhan