Local Red Cross under fire over China coronavirus donation mess

Public has sent medical supplies and money to help Hubei’s front-line medics, but most remains in Red Cross warehouse.

China virus
A doctor in Wuhan suits up. Many hospitals are without the critical medical supplies they need for health workers to do their jobs safely prompting a flood of donations from members of the public [China Daily via Reuters]

Chongqing, China – The Wuhan Red Cross and Hubei provincial Red Cross have come under fire after donations of crucial medical supplies from across China failed to arrive at the hospitals on the front lines of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 300 people.

Health workers, who are at high risk of infection without effective protection, including masks and suits, have been appealing for more supplies for days.

“The entire country has been mobilised to donate – why are doctors still not getting enough supplies?” read a reply to a doctor from Wuhan Union Hospital – one of the seven hospitals designated to treat coronavirus – who wrote on social media on Thursday that the hospital was out of supplies.

As more people scrambled to find ways to get much-needed masks and protective suits to hospitals, a report on donations and deliveries from Hubei’s Red Cross – the first since the beginning of the outbreak – showed that of two million masks donated from across China, the local Red Cross had delivered 200,000 to hospitals.

The masks had also been sent to hospitals that did not really need them.

China virus
Medical supplies donated from the coastal province of Jiangsu arrive at a hospital in Wuhan. The local Red Cross has come under fire for being slow to distribute much-needed masks and protective suits [Yuan Zheng/EPA]

Wuhan Union Hospital received just 5,000 surgical masks, while two other hospitals – Wuhan Ren’ai and Wuhan Tianyou – received 32,000. Neither Ren’ai nor Tianyou hospital treats coronavirus-infected patients, and each has one-tenth of the number of medics employed by Wuhan Union.

“Do they really understand what these supplies mean to the doctors and nurses?” Yukun Liu, a businessman from Chongqing who donated 2,000 surgical masks and 200 medical goggles to Wuhan, told Al Jazeera.

“I am honestly having a hard time trying to understand what the Red Cross was thinking – this is unforgivable.”

Key role

In any crisis in China, the local Red Cross is a key part of relief efforts – acting to ensure donations made by the public reach the places they are needed – but the coronavirus outbreak appears to have overwhelmed the organisation in Hubei.

In a statement, a Red Cross official explained that the masks delivered to Ren’ai and Tianyou were manufactured to the “KN95” standard rather than the “N95” standard required for medical workers on the front line.

N95, graded according to US standards, means the mask should be able to filter at least 95 percent of non-oily particles – a requirement for most medical workers treating respiratory diseases. KN95 is the China version of N95; the local standard, offering the same level of protection under a different name.

The public was unconvinced.

“The problem right now is that there are no masks in hospitals,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “When there isn’t even any surgical mask left, KN95 offers at least some protection, and the Red Cross has no right not to deliver them!”

Nurses and doctors at Wuhan Union Hospital have said they were forced to make masks and protective suits using the cloth from their medical overalls. In other cities, doctors have been using disposable rain ponchos as protection.

China virus
Protective suits are crucial for doctors treating patients with pneumonia caused by the coronavirus given how little is known about how the virus behaves and spreads [China Daily via Reuters]

Apart from distribution issues, Wuhan Red Cross is being asked another question: Why is it not spending the cash donations it has received?

As of January 29, the organisation had been given cash donations of 390 million yuan ($56m) but had used only 13 percent of the money to buy supplies.

‘Absolutely outrageous’

Respected Chinese media group Caixin reported that the Red Cross warehouse, which is approximately the size of two football fields, was almost entirely full of medical supplies but only a handful of people were sorting them for distribution.

“This is absolutely outrageous, but for now, let’s get these supplies to the hospitals as soon as we can,” Liu said. “Then we need to hold these people accountable.”

Le Chang, a supply office administrator at Wuhan’s Hankou Hospital said he had waited for three hours at the Red Cross warehouse only to receive two boxes of masks and no protective suits.

On Saturday evening, some 9,000 protective suits and surgical masks – donated by people in nine different provinces – were airdropped into Wuhan Union Hospital by a helicopter provided by a private company.

A number of hospitals are now saying they will only accept direct donations, effectively bypassing the Red Cross. This includes Huoshenshan, the 1,000-bed field hospital built by the military in eight days, which is due to open this week.

“We appreciate all donations from society; and in order to make sure all supplies go to the most needed, we have decided to accept donations ourselves without working with the Red Cross,” Song Zhan, donation coordination officer for Huoshenshan Hospital, told local media.

Hubei Red Cross later apologised on its official Weibo account and said it was “deeply regretful” about what had happened in the province.

Source: Al Jazeera