Masks of the Red (Cross) Death

You remember the Edgar Allan Poe story - The Masque of the Red Death

Prospero and 1,000 other nobles have taken refuge in this walled abbey to escape the Red Death, a terrible plague with gruesome symptoms that has swept over the land. Victims are overcome by "sharp pains", "sudden dizziness", and "profuse bleeding at the pores", and die within half an hour. Prospero and his court are indifferent to the sufferings of the population at large; they intend to await the end of the plague in luxury and safety behind the walls of their secure refuge, having welded the doors shut.

As noted yesterday, the Chinese Red Cross has come in for some special attention in social media.  Per reports, the Chinese Red Cross has collected millions of dollars in cash and equipment to assist in the coronavirus campaign.  The money should be used to buy supplies for hospitals. The supplies should get to hospitals without delay.  As you know, masks, gowns, hazardous clothing and medicines have been in desperately short supply throughout Hubei.  But in keeping with suspicions of the last decade, the Chinese Red Cross has not been forthcoming in its accounting for donations and particularly in its distribution of needed supplies to hospitals.

The Red Cross Society of China is not affiliated with the International Red Cross.  It has experienced heavy criticism, and donations have dwindled, since exposes related to the 2013 Sichuan earthquake relief and a 2011 scandal involving a woman flaunting her fabulous car, clothes, and lifestyle who also claimed to be a Red Cross director.  The Atlantic has a brief review of the problems, from 2013.  It appears that danwei donations, some government employee donations, and even student donations, were required to go to the Chinese Red Cross, rather than another non-profit.  Many Chinese openly question whether the Red Cross leaders divert money for their own purposes. 

That was then, and this is 2020. Bureaucratic delays can happen in any situation. Certainly, supplies should be accounted for.  But it appears that logistics for distribution of masks and gowns has gone seriously wrong, with no improvement over past operations. 

Many tons of supplies have been collected from throughout China and even from overseas packages of masks and gowns. The Red Cross initially said it would send supplies directly to hospitals. When the Red Cross only sent two trucks to deliver tons and tons of supplies throughout Wuhan – a city the size of all of northeastern Illinois - the bottleneck was obvious – and potentially deadly.  When the hospitals complained, the Red Cross told the hospitals to come pick up supplies themselves.  The hospitals were happy to dispatch people to do so.

When the dispatch people arrived at Red Cross headquarters, they still could not pick up supplies, because the Red Cross wasn’t ready.  Hospital staff were told to come back the next day – while supplies sat in the warehouse behind them. 

They still could not get supplies the next day, because the Red Cross demanded that hospitals produce a sort of introduction letter in order to obtain supplies.  This appears to be a sort of holdover from 30 years ago, when each danwei had to produce evidence of need and appropriate guanxi to get supplies without exchange of cash. 

At the top level hospital in Wuhan, doctors and nurses resorted to making their own masks from plastic bags and filter paper, and soliciting donations directly from the public instead of going through the government-approved Red Cross.  As punishment, this leading hospital received supplies of only 3,000 masks from the Red Cross.

A hospital that received 15,000 or 16,000 masks is not a hospital at all, but a private fertility clinic, with no fever department at all.  Managers of the clinic said they were donating the masks to people in the neighborhood, rather than the supplies going to the hospitals. One questions whether the masks were given away or sold. There is a related post at u/cheesyramennoddle on reddit, with different numbers. 

Dozens of Chinese volunteered to help the Red Cross in distribution of supplies. The wechat stories are about volunteers who stopped showing up, because of the inability of the Red Cross to make any effective use of their time. 

For donors looking to donate supplies directly, the Red Cross is charging donors a 6 to 8 percent cash fee to take the donations.  Management of the work has a cost, and non-profits need to get those funds somewhere.  Still, it seems a bit … unseemly to charge donors for making a donation. 

There are other avenues for donations of supplies.  The Chinese Charity Federation ci shan zhong wei is a nationwide organization for receipt of donations.  There are provincial and city branches all over China.

An overseas hai wai Chinese tells the story of attempting to donate masks, gowns, gloves, and goggles to Hubei, or Wuhan, or directly to the hospitals through the Charity Federation.  Over the span of about a week, he had to obtain about a dozen different forms for import of the goods, including a manufacturing license agreement MLA, a registration certificate for medical devices, and a report for detecting and analyzing – test report (sort of an FDA report) - these in addition to the normal import forms – logistics company receipts, name of a recipient at the hospital, name of the exporting company (there was no company, only an individual).  One probably can’t expect the Charity Federation to be up to speed on emergency donations from abroad, but his story tells of the disdain that local organizations seemed to have for an attempt to donate necessary emergency supplies. As in always the case in China, no one would volunteer to tell him what other forms might also be needed – in any case, it was likely that no one knew. He finally had to resort to using very special guanxi from Beijing to get approvals for import.  In the meantime, the Beijing, Hubei, and Wuhan branches of the Charity Federation were passing the buck among each other over whose stamp should be on the goods in order to receive them.  In addition, the provincial and city health bureaus were also demanding stamps before goods could be shipped from Shanghai port.  The Chinese donor in America finally did get his donations released and shipped, but there was quite clearly no emergency on the receiving end.  His comment was that it would be easier to ship illegal drugs into China than emergency medical supplies. 

Some supplies from abroad did get in before air flights were shut down.  Six deliveries from Japan, South Korea, and Britain did get through. According to my information, that included 4.82 million yuan worth of goods - 691,000 masks, 106,000 gowns, 50,700 pair of gloves, and 5000 pairs of protection goggles.    

The Red Cross logistics bottleneck has been the source of many angry postings from Chinese online. A CCTV journalist went to interview people at the Red Cross, but was turned away. At the same time, hospital staff were waiting in line with their introduction letters to get supplies from the Red Cross warehouse.  In the parking lot, leaving the Red Cross warehouse,  the journalist watched a driver with a Wuhan government license plate go into the warehouse and emerge with boxes of masks.  “For the leaders,” is what he told the journalist and the waiting hospital staff.  Masks of the Red (Cross) death, indeed. 

There is plenty of dishonor to go around in this crisis, but one sort of expects the Red Cross, even the Chinese government-affiliated Red Cross, to operate at a somewhat higher plane. That is not the on-the-ground experience right now. The Charity Federation does not emerge looking any better.  The government officials do have their masks, though, so perhaps the emergency is really over.