By Yun Hao
Chen Cui, a volunteer from Seattle and CEO of marketing company Matone, burst into tears as the plane finally started to pull out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at about 10:30 p.m. on Jan 28. He and other volunteers had worked hard to collect the medical supplies on the plane.
For several days before, fewer than 20 Chinese volunteers managed to get a Boeing 747 plane that flies to China filled with medical goods that the Chinese hospitals urgently need to combat the coronavirus outbreak. Most of the volunteers work or are attending college in the U.S.
The protective suits, gloves, respirators and other goods went to front-line hospitals fighting the virus.
“In the past four days, I’ve only slept for five hours altogether but now that the plane has successfully taken off, I can finally get some good rest tonight,” Cui said.
It has been more than a month since the coronavirus began sweeping across China, keeping most of China’s 1.4 billion people home for much of the time due to quarantine restrictions or fear of being exposed to the virus. Health-care workers and public services workers were the exceptions.
It was almost the Chinese Lunar New Year when the city government of Wuhan determined that this virus is highly contagious — often resulting in life-threatening viral pneumonia. Wuhan officials locked down the city. Yet, it was already too late.
According to Xianwang Zhou, the mayor of Wuhan, more than 5 million residents of a city of 11 million, had left town to reunite with families and celebrate the holiday across the nation. On Jan. 15 alone, the three train stations in Wuhan had carried 265,000 people to other destinations.
Medical experts confirmed that the virus can be spread from person to person and, at the same time, the nationwide outbreak spread.
The city and the country were not ready for the sudden epidemic. Panicked citizens flocked into the hospitals, and the medical protective gear healthcare workers needed began to run out. Wuhan Union Hospital, the largest and the most trusted hospital in the city, was the first to publicly seek help from outside the area. On Jan. 23, the hospital announced shortages had led to their urgent need for protective suits, goggles, N95 masks, surgical masks, surgical suits, sanitation hats and other supplies.
The rest of the hospitals in Wuhan followed that lead. Three days later, hospitals across the country started to seek help from the public and from outside China.
From the very beginning, the Chinese people responded generously by ordering any medical supplies that they can find online and delivering them directly to the hospitals. By Jan 25, all medical gear on all retail platforms were sold out, leaving more than 350 hospitals crying for more protective goods.
Overseas countries became the only source that has access to medical goods other than the factories.
Zhi Jin, senior vice president of China-based media company Particle Inc., was in Seattle enjoying a holiday with family when he learned about the coronavirus outbreak back home. He said he was very worried.
After making several phone calls with the Particle Inc. CEO Yuxiang Yang on Jan. 24, they made the decision to charter a plane and send it back to China filled with medical supplies to help with the shortages.
“It was not easy,” Jin said, “First we need to find a plane, and then we need to get enough medical goods to fill the plane.” as a quick and efficient response to help relieve the shortages.
“This idea of chartering, no one really believed me at first,” Jin said.
Chen Cui, CEO of Matone and a friend of Jin, lives in Seattle. Jin invited him and some of his colleagues to join the team and enlist other volunteers to make the gifts happen.
A few hours after Jin’s phone call with Yang, the team managed to find a Boeing 747 plane, one of the largest planes available. The only problem was that it needed to take off for Wuxi, China, just a few days later on Jan 28 for a scheduled flight from Chicago.
As the volunteers reached out to the American Chinese communities to collect donated goods. Individuals or small groups began to donate.
In addition to donations flowing in from various cities, Particle Inc. decided to purchase the medical supplies and fill in space in the plane by themselves.
“It was a lot of pressure to load that plane in time.” Jin said, “And it was the weekend, with many factories and stores were closed, making the situation even harder.”
The team spent sleepless nights trying to find a supplier, but things didn’t go smoothly. It took until Monday morning, to make a deal with a protective suit supplier in Alabama, a day before the plane left.
Jin talked to the supplier several times, but they were both holding back a little bit since there was not enough time for them to build enough trust to make a deal as big as this.
As time was running out, Jin decided to trust and to make a full payment for the suits based on the medical supplier’s promise of a rapid delivery. As he was wiring the check to this unfamiliar and unseen Alabama supplier, the Wells Fargo Bank President learned about the situation and promised Jin that he would get his money back if he didn’t get his purchases.
But the deal went smoothly. The Alabama supplier packed the gear and truck drivers spent a whole night rushing the 750,000 protective suits to Chicago.
The volunteers, the supplier, the bank president and the truck drivers were not the only ones that Jin and Cui feel grateful to.
Patrick J. Farrell, logistics specialist for family charter plane business ACA International, helped the team prepare for and settle with the access, cargo loading, the customs, and even the docking timing.
“We’ve worked most natural disasters around the world: the Tsunami in Asia, 2006, Chernobyl, the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico,” Farrell said. “We’ve done a lot of relief logistics over the years, so we’re really excited to be helping you on this project here.”
He had visited 15 cities in China in the past five years and was very familiar with the city of Wuhan. “We’re glad that we’re able to help, and give it a little bit back,” he said.