In a Monday briefing by China’s State Council Information Office (SCIO), the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) logistics chief said the large-scale annual joint drills typically held at Zhurihe Training Base in Inner Mongolia would be suspended.
Instead, the PLA has sent more than 10,000 medical personnel as well as transport aircraft and trucks to Hubei Province, the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak, to ferry materials into the quarantined district, Chen Jingyuan, director general of the Medical Service Bureau of the Logistic Support Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), said on Monday.
Chen said the armed forces have allocated 400,000 medical masks, 8,000 protective suits and other medical equipment to Wuhan, China News Service reported. The PLA Air Force has used its transport aircraft to conduct 30 flights to move medics and medical necessities from across the nation to Wuhan. In addition, dozens of military hospitals have been opened across the country to treat extreme cases of COVID-19.
The PLA’s Central Theater Command, which includes Hubei, has also run a daily convoy of 130 trucks into Wuhan, transporting more than 8,500 metric tons of goods and 23,600 medical apparatuses by March 1.
"Our armed forces have the responsibility to take part in disaster relief, emergency response and rescue missions," he said. "Our military's active participation in the fight against the disease … will not only comprehensively show the troops' emergency-response ability but also hone their operational skills. It could be seen as a combat exercise."
Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday China’s output of face masks increased twelvefold in February, reaching 116 million units per day on Saturday, according to data from the National Development and Reform Commission.
The South China Morning Post noted that the 11 million-strong city of Wuhan serves as a major regional rail and highway hub, and PLA forces in the country’s south would necessarily have to pass through the quarantined city on their way to Inner Mongolia.
“The CMC was forced to make the decision [to suspend the joint drills] just because of the lockdown in Wuhan,” a military insider told the Hong Kong-based paper. “The high infection rate in Wuhan indicates that the epidemic in the city has not yet contained. It’s too risky to let the troops pass through the city to their way to Zhurihe for training.”
However, the PLA will not be holing up in their barracks until the crisis is over. Senior Colonel Wu Qian, director general and spokesperson for the Information Office of the Ministry of National Defense, said at the news conference that the PLA would retain its normal work routine and training schedules even while coordinating a response to the epidemic, China News Service reported.
“Drills involving a single branch of the armed forces … including the ‘island encirclement near Taiwan’ to warn Taiwanese independence-leaning forces … will continue because border areas should always remain on high combat alert even when Beijing is busy [dealing] with domestic crises,” Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told SCMP on Monday.
More than 80,000 people in China have come down with the novel coronavirus, which is related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), accounting for nearly 87% of all identified cases in the world. According to data on Chinese cases published by Xinhua on Monday, 32,652 patients were still being treated, 44,462 patients had been discharged after recovery, and 2,912 people had died of the disease.
However, the spread of the disease, at least in Wuhan, has slowed. Hubei Province only reported 196 new confirmed cases on Monday, while 2,570 patients had recovered from the illness and been discharged from hospitals in the province. Meanwhile, the disease has been discovered in more than 60 countries, and shortcomings discovered in the screening process may mean that far more cases exist in places like the United States than have been so far identified.