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A medical worker holds out a test kit outside an emergency facility in Brescia, northern Italy on Tuesday. The nation is the worst-hit after China. Photo: AP

China sends team of medical experts, gear to help Italy fight coronavirus

  • Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio had asked his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi for assistance with supplies
  • Nation of 60 million people is the worst-hit after China and has been placed under lockdown

China is sending a team of medical experts to help Italy battle the coronavirus after the European country reported its highest death toll in a single day.

Beijing has provided similar assistance to Iran and Iraq to contain the spread of the respiratory virus that first broke out in central China. More than 4,200 people have been killed and over 117,000 infected – most of them in China – since the epidemic began in December.
Italy is the worst-hit country after China. It recorded its deadliest day on Tuesday, with 168 people killed by Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, taking the death toll to 631. More than 10,000 have been infected so far, and Rome has placed the entire country of 60 million people under lockdown.

Cases also continue to rise in neighbouring France and Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70 per cent of Germans – or almost 58 million people – could eventually be infected.

China meanwhile seems to have brought the disease under control, with President Xi Jinping on Tuesday saying victory was in sight during a symbolic visit to the epicentre, Wuhan. The country reported 24 new cases on Wednesday.

Local media said the Red Cross Society of China was leading a team of medical experts heading for Italy on Wednesday, taking supplies and equipment with them.

It follows a phone call between the two countries’ foreign ministers late on Tuesday, in which China’s Wang Yi responded to a request for help from his Italian counterpart Luigi Di Maio.

Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio said Italy was learning from China’s experience with the coronavirus. Photo: EPA-EFE

Wang told Di Maio that China would send medical equipment to the country, and also offered to send medical personnel to help tackle the outbreak in Italy, according to a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry website.

Di Maio had told Wang that Italy was “paying close attention to and learning from” China’s experience with the coronavirus, but had a shortage of medical equipment and he hoped China would help with this “pressing need”, the statement said.

The seven-member team includes an expert from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and two respiratory disease specialists from Sichuan University’s West China Hospital, according to the official Sichuan Daily.

It comes after prominent Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan briefed medical experts last week on how the virus had been managed in the country – including diagnosis, treatment, its pathological features, information disclosure and government controls – in a webinar organised by the European Respiratory Society.

China has been criticised for suppressing information when the new virus strain first emerged in Wuhan but is now calling for global cooperation to combat the epidemic and offering help to the countries that are hardest hit. Beijing had earlier thanked countries that donated protective gear as it struggled to cope with the public health crisis, but accused Washington of causing panic and using the outbreak to “smear China”.

Lu Xiang, an international relations researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was “a matter of course” for China to offer help to coronavirus-hit countries.

“We feel we’ve suffered in the same way. We’ve accumulated experience and learned lessons in our fight against the virus,” Lu said. “The situation in Italy is grim. It’s time to share – we can have good communication with them,” he said.

“China should help others as much as we can, as the domestic situation is under control. And we should do more for the countries that are facing difficulties, such as Iran and Iraq.”

During the phone call on Tuesday, Wang told Di Maio that China would not forget “the precious support” from Italy when “we were at the hardest moment fighting the epidemic”. “Now, we are willing to stand firmly by the side of the Italian people,” the Chinese foreign minister said.

“Although currently China itself still has great demand for medical materials, we will overcome the difficulties and offer material aid, including face masks, to Italy, and increase exports of materials and equipment to meet Italy’s urgent need,” Wang said. “If the Italian side requires it, China would also like to send medical teams to assist in combating the virus,” he said.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was “willing to stand firmly by the side of the Italian people”. Photo: EPA-EFE

China has also donated medical supplies such as protective face masks and test kits to some of the hardest-hit places – Iran, Pakistan, South Korea and Japan – and medical workers arrived to help in Iraq on Wednesday. They are among the countries that had earlier sent much-needed equipment and protective gear to China as it grappled with the crisis.

Beijing also announced over the weekend that it would donate US$20 million to the World Health Organisation to help combat the virus.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing and a government adviser, said Italy was becoming “a new epicentre of the virus” and needed urgent help.

“China has decisively contained the virus and has the experience,” he said. “So this is a natural move for global public health cooperation.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China sends experts, gear to help Italy fight virus