Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has obtained exclusive video revealing a huge backlog of goods at China’s biggest export hub that is slowing the supply of medical equipment urgently needed to protect hundreds of thousands of health workers as they fight the global coronavirus pandemic.
One video filmed on April 19 shows long queues of lorries loaded with cargo at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China’s busiest freight hub, waiting to unload at customs. Other videos reveal chaotic scenes at airport facilities with hundreds of boxes, including medical supplies, piling up in warehouses.
China produces nearly half the world’s supply of protective medical equipment with America and Europe two of its biggest customers.
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An experienced international logistics expert, who has spent months trying to buy and export medical masks, respirators and protective clothing (PPE) for various governments, described the situation as “carnage”.
Speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions for his Chinese staff, the Western shipping agent told Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit: “The degree of bureaucracy that we’ve encountered in almost every area has been horrendous.
“We’ve been able to source high-quality PPE. The challenge is getting it out of China and getting it into the country where it’s required,” the source added.
Exclusive. PPE stockpiles in China. Al Jazeera's I-Unit has obtained video of medical supplies piling up in warehouses and long queues of lorries waiting to unload at Shanghai airport. We will be bringing you news shortly. First, here is a quick look. pic.twitter.com/kSGjJWxFWK
— Al Jazeera Investigations (@AJIunit) May 1, 2020
The huge backlog of exports at China’s busiest airport is the result of a “perfect storm” of events that have choked the freight system; tougher Chinese export controls in response to international pressure to weed out sub-standard equipment, huge demand for PPE and a severe shortage of cargo planes.
The logistics expert did not blame Chinese officials for tightening the rules but was concerned by the impact. “They impose almost on a daily basis new criteria that exporters need to adhere to, so you are constantly faced with shifting goalposts. You’re just about to load your stuff on the plane then bang – a brand new mandate comes out from the Chinese government, saying, ‘Now we now need these stamps and this paperwork in order to export that type of PPE’.”
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The Chinese government told Al Jazeera, “COVID-19 test kits, face masks, protective gowns, ventilators and infrared thermometers are allowed for export as long as they are compliant with either Chinese or US Food and Drug Administration quality standards.”
The situation is so serious that earlier this month the US State Department asked China to ease their new quality control rules to help break the logjam of goods piling up at export hubs.
As the price of masks and medical clothing spirals so has the cost of air freight, which this procurement specialist said had increased 12-fold since the start of the pandemic.
In some cases, the PPE cargo has to wait behind a mountain of regular consumer goods like TVs, computers and clothing, that has been stuck in China since January when the country started to lock down travel and exports.
At the moment there appears to be no policy to prioritise urgent medical supplies, he told Al Jazeera.
There is another problem facing international hospital procurement teams as they struggle to buy masks, surgical gowns, gloves and COVID-19 test kits.
They find they are competing with businessmen who are offering millions of dollars to buy up the entire production of PPE at Chinese factories to profit from rising prices.