Made in China? Perhaps not…

Just as countries around the world are rejecting and recalling medical supplies from China because these are sub-par or defective, the Maltese government announced today that it received 100,000 surgical face masks from a Chinese company.

Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo started the week with a press conference, together with Consumer Protection Parliamentary Secretary Deo Debattista, where they both announced that the masks will be distributed to various entities including the Armed Forces, the police, Correctional Services and the Cleansing and Maintenance Division.

The 100,000 masks were donated by Chinese film-making company Hongyi (Beijing) Culture Development Co. Ltd and Bartolo took advantage of the press conference to “praise the ongoing efforts between Maltese and Chinese experts to exchange best practices and lessons learnt on the containment of COVID-19”.

And this is not the first consignment from China – last week, a donation of 20,000 “specialised” face marks were shipped to the Malta Trust Foundation, which is headed by former president Marie Louise Coleiro Preca.

These shipments come in the wake of countries around the world, including The Netherlands, Spain, Philippines, Czech Republic and Turkey that have recalled or sent back coronavirus testing kits and medical supplies that are Chinese-made, saying these are substandard or they simply do not work.

The Netherlands was the latest as it recalled hundreds of thousands of masks, saying these were defective and low quality. Around 600,000 face masks had been distributed to hospitals and clinics before it was found that these were not up to scratch because these failed to fit the mouth and had insufficient filters.

The Dutch authorities said the masks came with a KN95 certificate which meant they should filter out at least 95% of airborne particles.

The move seemed to have touched a sore point with Chinese authorities as Xu Hong, Chinese Ambassador to The Netherlands, said it was “inappropriate” to politicise the issue as there was an ongoing investigation.

Health authorities, including the World Health Organisation, have repeatedly said masks were not going to prevent the spread of the virus and were only effective when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. It must also be used and disposed of properly.

This has not stopped Chinese companies from pushing forward their product – social media is filled with thousands of posts written in stilted, broken English advertising the sale of masks in bulk.

But it is not only limited to masks. Spain and The Philippines each ordered hundreds of thousands of coronavirus test kits – only to find that these were not up to standard. The Spanish Health Ministry withdrew 8,000 Chinese manufactured rapid testing kits and returned these together with another 50,000 that had not yet been sent out.

The manufacturer promised to replace these “in the coming days” with the correct specification as part of a total shipment of 640,000 kits to Spain – the country that has been hit the second hardest in Europe by the virus. The manufacturer said the problems may have been caused by incorrect sample collection or use of the product.

These kits are over and above a €432 million purchase order of medical equipment from China, which includes 5.5 million tests.

Similarly, the Department of Health in The Philippines bought one million test kits from China – and had to discard a number because accuracy was around 40%.

Turkey also tried to use the rapid testing kits for coronavirus but found that these gave inaccurate results.

In the Czech Republic, up to 80% of the 300,000 rapid Wuhan virus test kits ordered from China were not working properly. The test kits worth around €1.83 million showed false positive as well as negative results.

Meanwhile, in a parallel reality, US President Donald Trump said there was a countrywide shortage of masks and ventilators because nurses and medical staff were ‘stealing them’.

“How do you go from 10 to 20 to 30,000, to 300,000 — even though this is different. Something is going on. And you ought to look into it as reporters. Where are the masks going?” he said in a recent press briefing on coronavirus.

Trump also asked doctors and first responders why disposable masks could not be used more than once.

As all this plays out, experts have noted how China is taking advantage of the situation with a massive onslaught of propaganda. It tries to look good with the rest of the world through sheer numbers, by donating and selling medical supplies as its factories now focus their manufacturing output on masks, kits, gloves and gowns.

Trolls on social media propagate the idea of China’s popularity in Europe – Italians singing on their balconies were suddenly singing the Chinese anthem according to fake social media accounts.

“China is trying to turn its health crisis into a geopolitical opportunity,” Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at Chatham House, a UK think tank said. “It is launching a soft power campaign aimed at filling the vacuum left by the United States.”

It will also help rebuild its public image after the worldwide backlash it received for the way it mishandled the outbreak, spread and dissemination of information of the coronavirus. While it claims that the first few cases emerged in December, experts believe that the spread actually started one month earlier in November.

This was highlighted in a strongly worded article by the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy. “There is a global battle of narratives going on in which timing is a crucial factor,” he said.

Whoever was best at organising the response, quickly drawing on lessons learnt from around the world and communicating successfully towards citizens and the wider world, will come out strongest.

“But we must be aware there is a geopolitical component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’,” he said.


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