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Military medical staff fly into Wuhan on an air force transport plane last weekend. Photo: Xinhua

China’s military put to the crisis test in coronavirus call-up

  • The PLA has been sent in to staff hospitals and distribute medical supplies, reprising disaster relief roles it has played before
  • After decades of economic growth, civilian health system not able to meet demand, analyst says
The coronavirus crisis has prompted one of the Chinese military’s biggest mobilisations of medical personnel in decades, putting its crisis management skills to the test.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has sent at least 3,500 medical staff to Wuhan, in Hubei province at the heart of the outbreak, in the past week.

Many of the personnel were reportedly part of the responses to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003 and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, among other crises.

“It’s the biggest military mobilisation of navy, ground and air forces, as well as medical staff from military-affiliated hospitals and medical students since China started its opening-up reforms in 1978,” Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said.

“This mission could be seen as a real test of the PLA’s joint operation capability since the military was overhauled,” Zhou said, referring to reforms in the last few years to streamline and modernise the PLA.

In 2003, the PLA sent 1,200 medical staff to a temporary Sars hospital called Xiaotangshan in Beijing.

A retired officer who was part of relief efforts in the aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, said that at least 3,000 PLA medical staff had been sent to Wuhan to operate two temporary coronavirus hospitals, which together had a capacity for 2,500 people.

But even that deployment was not enough.

“There is a shortage of medical staff at the two hospitals, so the PLA is recalling more veterans with medical knowledge and disaster relief experience to active duty,” the source said.

Among those being drafted into the mission are those with experience combating Ebola in Africa, according to The PLA Daily.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said military staff were well equipped to deal with a crisis.

“The PLA has many advantages and medical resources they can draw on, including their military hospitals and military researchers and institutes. This is part of their key mission in non-traditional defence operations,” Song said.

State broadcaster CCTV also reported that hundreds of PLA officers had taken control of the distribution of the limited medical supplies and essential logistics in Wuhan.

Adam Ni, co-editor of China Neican, a policy newsletter on China issues, said the PLA would play a bigger and important role in the coronavirus effort, given the outbreak’s broad impact on the country.

“It’s quite natural for the [Communist Party] to call upon the gun when stability is in risk,” Ni said, adding that Beijing would not allow the military to take full charge of the operation.

On January 25, Beijing said 30 of the country’s major administrative regions were on the highest level of preparedness and response, a crisis management system designed for wartime and severe natural disasters.

The system calls for veterans to be ready to return to active duty at any time and local governments should work with the military to roll out a series of measures to prevent further infection.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said that in a “normal” country, the military would simply aid in disaster relief missions.

But in China, the PLA still had to take the lead, despite the last three decades of economic growth.

“The development of China’s medical and health system has failed to match the country’s rapid economic reforms to serve the people,” Wong said.

The outbreak comes just months after Hubei organised an epidemic readiness drill as part of preparations to host the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan.

“The outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the inefficient operation of Hubei government indicate that the crisis management drill was just a show, and now the whole country and the PLA have to clean up the mess,” the Tangshan veteran said.

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: PLA ‘forced to pick up the slack’ of failed relief efforts