China has deployed 450 medical staff from the military to the epicentre of a deadly coronavirus outbreak that has spread around the world, including to the United States, France and Nepal.
Three military transport aircraft, carrying doctors, nurses and medical supplies of masks and medicines from Shanghai, Chongqing and Xian, landed at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Hubei province in central China late on Friday night, according to the Ministry of National Defence.
The ministry said the personnel were all top specialists in respiratory and infectious diseases as well as intensive care from hospitals affiliated with the army, navy and air force. They would help ease the burden on staff at hospitals inundated with cases of the pneumonia-like illness.
Some of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) staff had experience dealing with emergencies such as the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the Ebola virus crisis between 2014 and 2016, the ministry said.
The deployment of PLA medical personnel to Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million people, comes as the outbreak of viral pneumonia, first identified in a seafood market in the city in December, spreads across the country and overseas, with cases reported in Macau, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Malaysia as well as Australia, the US and Nepal.
By noon on Saturday, 41 people had died and a total of 1,345 cases had been confirmed in mainland China. Among the confirmed cases was that of a two-year-old girl in southern China's Guangxi region. Roughly 2,000 suspected cases were under investigation.
The decision to deploy PLA medical staff follows appeals by Wuhan hospitals for help to cover shortages of medical supplies and personnel. Doctors and nurses have reportedly been working around the clock as the number of suspected cases continues to rise.
The PLA is being deployed much sooner than it was in the Sars outbreak in 2003, when a slow response from the authorities failed to contain the illness in the early stages, with 774 people dying worldwide.
In April 2003, six months after the first case was detected in the southern Chinese city of Shunde, China sent 1,200 medical personnel from the PLA to the barracks-like Xiaotangshan Hospital on the outskirts of Beijing to treat isolated patients.
According to state news agency Xinhua, a total of 1,383 military doctors and nurses worked in Xiaotangshan at that time, which Beijing hailed as key measure to stopping the spread.
Yue Gang, a military commentator in Beijing, said it was a tradition for the PLA to be mobilised for disaster relief work and public emergencies but there was no sign that a wider military deployment was needed to control the situation in Wuhan. If it were required, Wuhan authorities would have to submit a request to Beijing.
"If the local police cannot maintain order, then the local authorities can make such a request to Beijing. However, judging from the current situation, we are far from that," he said.
As part of the extreme measures to contain the spread, Wuhan has shut down public transport in the city since Thursday, with at least 12 other cities in the province following suit.
Wuhan has also restricted vehicles in central districts. From Sunday, only cars transporting supplies and official vehicles are allowed on the road in those areas.
"These measures are being implemented well, showing that traffic police can carry out the (traffic control) mission," Yue said. "A request to mobilise more military personnel would only be needed if local authorities failed to control the city. The city authorities could ask for help from the central government, but so far I don't think the situation is getting to that point."
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