1 million masks for Australia arrive on 747 cargo flight from China

Chinese businesses and Chinese community gives back to Australia in spades

13 April 2020 | Su-Lin Tan, SCMP (IMAGE: Martin Pinnau)

A group of private Chinese and Australian businesses have delivered 70 tonnes of medical equipment, including one million face masks from the Chinese city of Wuhan to Sydney amid accusations that Australia’s medical supplies stockpile had been depleted after it made humanitarian shipments to Wuhan in January as the city battled a surge of coronavirus cases

The shipment, which included protective gear, goggles and medical gloves, arrived in Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport on a Jinpeng Airlines cargo aircraft, flight Y87447. It was one of the first flights to depart Wuhan, after a months-long lockdown to stem the outbreak was lifted on Wednesday

Several businesses – including the Hainan-owned Jinpeng Airlines, also known as Suparna Airlines, China’s Jiuzhou Tong Pharmaceutical Group, and a local group of businesses led by Sydney entrepreneur Richard Yuan, who chairs the local Australia China Goodwill Association – funded the flight and the goods which had been sourced from different parts of China

Major challenges

Yuan said the donation was fraught with difficulties, including meeting Australian quality controls, but also dealing with what he described as a hostile local media.

Two weeks ago, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) published reports suggesting several Chinese-backed companies had hurt Australia’s stockpile of medical equipment after sending tonnes of masks and medical equipment to Wuhan in January, when it was the only city tackling a severe outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The articles had prompted a backlash from the Asian-Australian community. On Wednesday, the SMH ran an excerpt of an open letter by a group of prominent Asian-Australians, denouncing racial abuse towards the community.

“Australians are being targeted because of their Asian heritage or appearance and we cannot allow this disturbing trend to continue unchallenged. We ask for fairness in our national debate, our media reporting and in our communities,” the letter said.

Yuan echoed that concern, adding the backdrop of suspicions in the local media made the group’s donation particularly hard.

“There were difficulties in making the donation including mobilising a large group of companies and people. At the same time, it was hard, having borne huge logistics costs, to be constantly viewed with suspicion by the Australian public who think it’s all part of a profit-making initiative,” he said.

Yuan said the group had started planning a donation of medical equipment when it became clear the spread of the novel coronavirus had worsened in Australia. The country now has over 6,300 cases and 61 deaths.

First international flight out of Wuhan

“The flight was initially scheduled for early March but export and mask quality policy changes resulted in severe delays to departure,” he said. “In addition, because this flight was the first international commercial aircraft after the reopening of the Wuhan Tianhe Airport, approval procedures were particularly complicated.”

Wuhan medical aid being unloaded at Sydney Airport (supplied)

The 747 cargo aircraft returned to China carrying many of Australia’s exports, including nearly 400 kilograms of lamb, about 2,000 boxes of milk powder and thousands of kilograms of Tasmanian Atlantic salmon worth about A$1.7 million.

The donors said some of the Australian products would be donated to the schools and welfare groups in Wuhan and surrounding areas, while others, such as salmon, would be sold to kick-start a revival of Australia’s fresh food exports to China, an industry severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic

In February, many exporters particularly seafood sellers had to dock their boats when millions of dollars of Chinese orders were cancelled.

More aid flights are in planning

One of the businesses named in the The Sydney Morning Herald report for potentially “contributing” to Australia’s mask shortage, Risland Australia, the international arm of China’s Country Garden, was also contemplating a China-to-Australia donation. In February, it sent an 80-tonne donation to Wuhan from Australia before coming under fire for its actions.

GT Hu, the CEO of Risland Australia, said the materials were assembled when China was the epicentre of the virus outbreak and before the Australian government activated its emergency management measures.

“No secret of this was made at the time … the donation was prompted by the World Health Organization’s appeal to supply such materials to China,” he said.

A Risland-associated charity was now in the planning phase for a reciprocal shipment of medical and other supplies to Australia, Hu said.

Support from Australian Medical Association

The Australian Medical Association’s South Australian president, Dr Chris Moy, who was quoted in a Guardian Australia piece he described as “politicising” the coronavirus crisis, said the local press had “missed the point” when it claimed these Chinese-backed companies were hurting the local stockpile of medical goods.

“At the time, there had been no increase in demand,” he said.

The standard stockpile around Australia was about 20 million and that pool was not sufficient for any pandemic, Moy said.

As there was no national “count” of medical-standard equipment like masks in Australia, there was also no transparency around the number of products available in the market, he said.

The sale of masks was driven by a free market and there was hoarding not only among the public but also in hospitals, he added.

Dr. Moy said it was up to the government to stockpile supplies of medical equipment and that included having to purchase the goods from the private sector.

“We don’t have command and control over masks [in Australia],” he said.

The Australian government confirmed more than 10 million masks had now been deployed to hospitals from the National Medical Stockpile in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, while 15 million masks had been added to the stockpile since March 27.

“More than half a billion surgical masks and approximately 85 million P2/N95 masks are on order for staggered delivery to ensure adequate supply throughout the year,” a spokesperson said.

The International Free Press has also called out global news outlets to “check themselves” against impulses of racially-motivated coronavirus reporting.

“Viewers need to call out reporters, anchors and other news personalities who resort to discriminatory framing in their reporting,” a Free Press spokesman said.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post