A medical worker in protective suit adjusts a drip bag for a patient at a hospital, following an outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan
A medical worker in protective suit adjusts a drip bag for a patient at a hospital, following an outbreak of the new coronavirus in Wuhan

PLA rushes to the rescue in Wuhan

ANI | Updated: Feb 05, 2020 09:47 IST

Hong Kong, Feb 5 (ANI): With China belatedly reacting to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that struck first in Wuhan, Hubei Province, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has now been deployed to play an instrumental supporting role in the treatment of patients and attempting to halt the outbreak.
On 29 January, Chairman Xi Jinping ordered the PLA to "shoulder its responsibility" to prevent a pandemic. Despite the situation being "challenging and complex", the president said, "the PLA must keep in mind its purpose and respond to orders". He praised it for "resolutely carrying out the decision of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee after the outbreak and promptly launching an epidemic prevention and control mechanism and dispatching elite forces to the front line of the battle against the virus".
A new makeshift Huoshenshan Hospital was constructed in just nine days, and the PLA moved in to begin running it on 3 February after it was formally handed over the previous day. The military has deployed 1,400 personnel to man and run this medical facility at the epicenter of the outbreak.
The hospital contains 1,000 beds. Some 950 PLA personnel of the total 1,400 emanate from the military's Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), while another 450 from respective medical universities of the army, navy and air force had already been dispatched to civilian facilities such as Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital. Many of these military staff had experience in combating SARS or Ebola in Sierra Leone and Liberia. They are expected to serve in Wuhan for at least a month.
Military medical research institutions are also contributing to research and development of vaccines.
Chinese state media and mouthpieces such as the PLA Daily have been proclaiming the efficiency and skill of the military, but one must ask why it took so long for them to be released. The authorities only enacted a quarantine on Wuhan on 23 January, even though the outbreak started in December.
Xinhua has been busy quoting supposedly reassuring epithets from circulars such as "party organizations at all levels and party members in the military must resolutely implement President Xi Jinping's order to win the fight against the coronavirus outbreak". Not only that, but, "Party organizations at all levels should deeply study and understand the important instructions made by Xi, also general secretary of the CPC Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC)."
Interestingly, amidst this serious health crisis - which comes on top of a trade war with the USA, setbacks on diplomatic fronts and widespread protests in Hong Kong - Xi has been strangely invisible in recent days and he has not appeared on the front pages of newspapers for nearly a week.
A central leading group chaired by Li Keqiang has been set up to manage the effort, and some cynics might say that Xi is distancing himself somewhat from this event so as to deflect any personal blame.
But turning to the PLA's involvement, who is coordinating its efforts and is charged with implementing the CMC'sinstructions? It is specifically the job of the aforementioned PLA Joint Support Force (JLSF).
Its head is Lieutenant General Li Yong, and he has stated that all his units should be planning, preparing and unremittingly waging this "hard battle".
The PLA Daily reported that "all JLSF units at all levels, especially the joint logistics hospitals, disease control institutions and troops stationed in Hubei Province should be fully aware of the grim situation of the epidemic prevention and control, improve the prearranged planning, make joint efforts with civil forces and, according to the system of receiving and treating at fixed points, provide proper medical treatment to patients while paying attention to self-safety protection".
Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Xu Zhongbo, the force's political commissar, said "JLSF troop units at all levels should enhance publicity and instructions of the epidemic prevention and control work, and intensify epidemic surveillance".
After the provincial government and national leadership initially tried to downplay the risk of the 2019-nCoV outbreak - thus allowing it to spread rapidly across the country in order to save face and avoid bad publicity - the government is now mobilizing its vast bureaucratic apparatus, which includes the military.
As well as the JLSF, other services such as the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) have been lending a hand. For example, the PLAAF utilized eight Il-76 transport aircraft on 2 February to ferry 795 medical personnel and 58 tonnes of supplies to Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. These aircraft from an aviation division of the Central Theater Command flew from diverse bases in Shenyang, Lanzhou, Guangzhou and Nanjing.
It is interesting that the larger-capacity Y-20s were not used for this mission, but rather Russian-built Il-76s. State media said this was the largest non-military operation of the PLAAF since April 2010, when the military responded to an earthquake in Qinghai Province.
Aircraft from the same division transported three medical support teams on 24 January, the eve of Chinese New Year. These medical personnel, who had all volunteered, were "experts in respiratory health, infectious diseases, hospital infection control and intensive care units".
A train loaded with emergency supplies also reached Hankou Railway Station in Wuhan on 26 January. It carried equipment such as 10,000 class-C protective clothing and 3,760 bottles of ethyl alcohol from Shenyang in Liaoning and Heze in Shandong. This material was handed over to civil practitioners.
To control its operation, the PLA established a forward command and coordination group. Within it, the JLSF, CMC organs, People's Armed Police (PAP) and Academy of Military Sciences formed a military joint prevention and control working system.
In Wuhan itself is the PLA's Central Theater Command General Hospital. It contains more than 500 beds and has been accepting patients overflowing from civil hospitals.
The PLA spends a lot of time on political theory, philosophy and the mindless imbibing of dictums from the CPC. Thus, earlier in January, Xi was more intent on promoting his own philosophy as he exhorted soldiers: "I hope you stick to the Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, uphold the party's thought on strengthening the military, and implement military strategies in the new era...You must enhance the sense of mission, be focused on improving your capabilities, make sure all of your jobs are fully done, and unswervingly complete the goals set by the party and the people."
Writing for The Jamestown Foundation, a US-based think tank, Ryan Oliver observed: "This test presents China-watchers with a unique opportunity to assess how the CCP addresses continued contradictions...in attempting to improve its capacity for governance, while also maintaining a monopoly over the public dissemination of information."
Wuhan Mayor Zhao Xianwang explained that national restrictions prevented him from disclosing information about the outbreak until the central government approved it. It took three weeks from the first cases before an outbreak was officially announced. The national response was also tardy. Premier Li Keqiang did not visit the area until 27 January. Even in his New Year's speech, Xi failed to mention coronavirus all.
It is highly likely Xi and his centralized apparatchiks will increasingly blame provincial officials too. Nonetheless, despite initial delays in its official response, Beijing has reacted with greater speed and more openness than it did with the SARS crisis in 2002-04.
Oliver concluded: "On the one hand, management of the public narrative in state media creates sufficient space for Beijing to lay blame for the early failures at the feet of local authorities, and to take credit for the more robust response later in January. Impressive logistical figures (e.g., the volume of medical supplies contributed or the amount of funding dedicated) and physical symbols (e.g., rapid hospital construction) provide talking points and support a narrative of energetic CCP efforts to stem the tide of the growing epidemic."
Indeed, agencies like the PLA are probably going to come out of this saga smelling sweetly, because the state-controlled media will highlight their hard-fought victory. Oliver posed the question, though: "As the CCP moves forward through this unfolding situation, its leadership must weigh the credibility costs of delayed action - not to mention the lives lost and resources expended as a result - against the benefits of its iron grip on information."
Turning back to the JLSF, this new force was established on 13 September 2016 amidst the massive reforms to the PLA's organization in the preceding year. Directly under the CMC's command, the purpose was to unify logistics at the strategic level and to support the five newly formed theater commands. The JLSF emphasizes the use of information technology(including big data), logistics networks and databases. It also relies on civil-military integration and employing dual-use technologies, so it would commonly utilize the civil transportation sector, for instance.
The former General Logistics Department was a hotbed of corruption, so the PLA has been trying to clean up this branch of the military. For example, individuals have embezzled funds intended for procuring supplies, logistics equipment and maintaining stocks in depots. It is difficult to rate the overall success of Xi's anti-graft campaign, but it must surely have tamped down overt corruption within the logistics branch.
Interestingly, centrally located Wuhan is the main center for the JLSF. The Wuhan Joint Logistics Support Base essentially acts as the headquarters for the force. In addition, there are five Joint Logistics Support Centers to serve the five theater commands. These are located in Wuxi (Eastern Theater Command), Guilin (Southern), Xining (Western), Shenyang (Northern) and Zhengzhou (Central).
Each center features a mix of army, navy, air force and rocket force personnel, with multiple units, warehouses, fuel depots, hospitals and underground facilities. They logistically support their respective theaters as well as any units passing through their region for exercises or wider contingencies.
For the coronavirus epidemic, the PLA has ample materiel such as cargo trucks, ambulances and even specialist 4x4 Mengshi vehicles that can spray decontaminants that it can bring to bear.
According to Kevin McCauley, an independent analyst who has studied the JLSF, specific capabilities of the JLSF include contingency logistic support brigades; medical support, mobile medical units and hospitals; petroleum, oil and lubricant depots, plus oil pipeline groups and field fuel station detachments; ammunition depots; quartermaster depots; maintenance and repair; finance; and military facility construction. Army reserve logistics brigades located around China can also be mobilized if necessary.
McCauley assessed: "The PLA appears to be more advanced in developing the joint logistics system than implementing joint operations. However, the PLA considers its joint logistics capability as weak."
China has had ample opportunities to rehearse and stretch the legs of its logistics network, especially in the wake of disasters such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In the latter, for example, the PLA was hampered by a lack of assets such as helicopters, and improvements have been gradually made.
This 2019-nCoV relief operation concentrated in Wuhan thus represents one of the first and largest contingencies it has faced. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how well the PLA copes and whether it has in fact made progress in its attempt to be an efficient, modern and joint force. (ANI)

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