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Opinion

Online donations are no substitute for proper coronavirus funding

Individuals are giving to Wuhan hospitals, but it is Chinese government's job

The best hospitals in Wuhan desperately turn to the civil society for help.   © Xinhua/AP

I tapped the unfamiliar name on my phone. A window popped up in WeChat to ask me how much money I would like to send. I typed in 50, clicked "confirm" and held the phone at eye level so the facial recognition system could fill in my password automatically.

Ta-da. Done. Within a few seconds, I had donated 50 yuan ($7.20) through the mobile payment system to help the front-line medical workers combating the new coronavirus in Wuhan.

Wuhan Union Hospital, one of the top medical facilities in China, had asked for help: "To better treat the patients, law-abiding donations of the following medical supplies from the public are urgently needed." An unofficial spreadsheet of the 22 hospitals in Wuhan that had made similar requests was widely shared.

The public responded quickly. Within hours, people in and outside China started to organize donations to purchase supplies and deliver them to the hospitals. That was when I saw the WeChat fundraising post made by a Wuhan University alumni association and donated my meager 50 yuan. It isn't big, but hopefully it can turn into two dozen surgical masks or a few sets of disposable protective clothing.

Yet what troubled me was that when there was a shortage in the best hospitals in Wuhan, which are overwhelmingly owned by the state, they desperately turned to the civil society for help. In public health emergencies like this, it is not the private donors' job to keep the hospitals running; the Chinese government needs to step up and make full use of its economic growth.

Since December, the coronavirus outbreak has pushed Wuhan, an important inland city, to the brink. By Monday, 80 people had died of the virus, 76 of whom were in Hubei, Wuhan's province. The city of 11 million people was locked down -- all inbound and outbound transportation had been cut off -- and so were 14 smaller cities surrounding it.

Paramilitary police stand guard outside the closed Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan on Jan. 23: the city of 11 million people is locked down.   © Chinatopix/AP

To me, these numbers mean more than just cold figures. I was born and raised in Wuhan. Every casualty could be someone I know. I was there last Christmas to visit my family, who are now stuck in the epidemic-stricken city. Panicking, thousands of miles away, I can only force refresh the news about Wuhan on my phone.

It was not a surprise to me that the Wuhan medical system was not ready for a super-infectious coronavirus outbreak, one possibly more severe than SARS in 2003, but the scale of the scarcity is worrisome.

In an online People's Daily article from January 22, the Hubei provincial government estimated a shortage of 40 million protective masks, five million protective outfits and 5,000 infrared thermometers in Hubei. The article's numbers were later removed. Media interviews with front-line doctors also revealed that the supplies were only enough for a few days.

I was happy that, even though I'm not in China physically, mobile payment systems have made donating easy. Donors like me can send money to individual organizers we have met on social media directly or to charity organizations verified by WeChat or Alipay, all with a few taps.

But this is when the state institutions are expected to chip in and react quickly. Does the Chinese market system, often criticized for being too centrally controlled, not allow the government to rapidly direct resources to Wuhan if needs be? It seems like a no-brainer that the government would concentrate its world-leading manufacturing capacity to produce medical supplies and solve the acute shortage.

While individuals have been reacting to the hospital requests, central and local governments have made very few announcements about addressing this challenge.

The day the hospitals were crying for help, the Ministry of Finance announced an emergency expenditure of one billion yuan for the treatment and prevention of the coronavirus, yet there has been no definite follow-up information about how the money would be spent.

There have been sporadic news lines about how the government is coordinating supplies: the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology arranged for 10,000 sets of protective clothing to be sent to Wuhan; the same day, the Ministry of Commerce said it had secured two million masks to be delivered soon.

The contrast is so clear between, on the one side, daily announcements made by private fundraising efforts of how much they have raised and the equipment they have purchased and, on the other side, the silent government. Civil society is reacting much faster than in 2003 because of the technological advances like social media and mobile payments, but the government is neither quicker nor more transparent than it was.

It is heartwarming to see millions of ordinary people standing up to donate to my hometown and leaving supportive messages, but that is not enough. The major responsibility inevitably falls upon state institutions, who need to fulfill their responsibility by bringing together financial and material resources and, important in the era of the internet, notifying the people of every step they are taking in a timely manner.

If hospitals need to count on ordinary average-income people like me, it shows a failure of the state's governance.

Zeyi Yang is a journalist and researcher based in New York. He writes about immigration, race, LGBTQ issues and everything related to China.

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