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Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan (right) inspects the temporary Huoshenshan hospital in Wuhan on Sunday. Photo: Xinhua

Coronavirus: Chinese military takes control of medical supplies in Wuhan

  • Logistics team of 260 officers and 130 military trucks are delivering basics in the city where the outbreak began
  • Source says they are there to make sure donations to charity groups reach their intended recipients
China has deployed hundreds of military officers to control the flow of medical and essential supplies in Wuhan, ground zero of the deadly coronavirus outbreak, state media and sources said.

A People’s Liberation Army logistics team of 260 officers, with 130 military trucks, started delivering basic supplies on Sunday, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

It said they delivered 200 tonnes of supplies to supermarkets in the Hubei province city of 11 million people on the first day.

The team is made up of officers from the PLA’s airborne troops and air force stationed at the Wuhan garrison, and ground force troops from local military academies.

The logistics operation began the same day as 1,400 medical personnel from the PLA were sent to staff the first completed temporary hospital in Wuhan.

The Huoshenshan hospital, which was built from scratch in eight days in response to the crisis and will be controlled by the military, was due to open on Monday. A defence ministry statement said the medical staff deployment had been personally approved by President Xi Jinping.

A source close to the PLA, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the logistics team was there to make sure donations to charity organisations like the Red Cross Society reached their intended recipients.

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“The Beijing leadership realised that almost all the donation points in Hubei and Wuhan have had delivery problems, that there are some opportunists using this crisis to make money,” the military source said.

He gave the example of donors in Shandong province who claimed the 350 tonnes of cabbage they sent to Hubei had not been delivered to families in need, but had instead been found on sale in local supermarkets.

“Mobilising the military is always the most efficient way to maintain public order at critical moments in mainland China,” the source said. “The [Central Military Commission] also sent PLA troops to deliver basic supplies during the Sars outbreak,” he said, referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2002-03.

The Red Cross Society of Hubei province and its branch in Wuhan are under fire after donations of crucial medical supplies from across the country failed to arrive at local hospitals on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 360 people since it began in December – more than the death toll in mainland China from Sars.

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More than 17,000 people have been sickened with the pneumonia-like illness in mainland China, and cases have been confirmed in over a dozen other places.

A medical source, who also did not want to be identified, said “other troops have actually been sent to deliver and control the use of medical supplies in Wuhan hospitals since January 22” because of the supply problems.

The source said there was a chronic shortage of medical and protective supplies in Wuhan hospitals, partly because many doctors, nurses and other staff had taken masks and other supplies for their personal use amid growing fears over the spread of the new virus.

Chinese media have reported that desperate health workers – who are at high risk of infection without effective protection such as masks and suits – had been appealing online for more supplies.

Meanwhile, local officials in Wuhan were found to have sent drivers to the Red Cross to collect boxes of surgical masks – known as N95 respirators – for their families’ use.

“The Wuhan Red Cross only has about 20 staff, and many of them are the wives of local officials – that’s why local officials dared to take those medical supplies [for themselves],” the medical source said. “So to prevent these type of scandals from happening again, the military troops have now taken over the medical deliveries for the Red Cross.”

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As well as PLA troops on the streets delivering medical supplies, armed police have also been seen patrolling the streets of Wuhan, according to video footage circulating on social network WeChat.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong said the situation in Wuhan could be seen as partial implementation of martial law, as the city’s main sources of medical and essential supplies were under military control.

“This is a common measure used by the Chinese Communist Party to maintain public order,” Wong said. “Beijing just announced it today because it wants to alleviate public panic over the disease that would cause a shortage of the basics.”

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: PLA team deployed to control supplies in Wuhan