Chinese city accused of stealing virus masks from hard-hit neighbor

BEIJING (Reuters) - A Chinese city with only eight confirmed cases of a new coronavirus has been accused of intercepting a shipment of surgical masks bound for a municipality with 400 cases, prompting outrage on social media.

A medical worker holds a thermometer to check a passenger's temperature at a checkpoint as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Susong County, Anhui province, China, February 6, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Hospitals, towns and cities across China are scrambling for supplies of equipment, in particular protective masks, as the number of cases of the coronavirus, which emerged in the central city of Wuhan in December, approaches 30,000.

Nearly 600 people have died.

The government of Dali city, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, was accused this week of making an “emergency requisition” of a shipment of masks bound for the hard-hit municipality of Chongqing, state media reported.

Chongqing told Dali to give them back but the Dali government said on Wednesday it had already distributed the 598 boxes of masks and so could not retrieve them.

Dali drew widespread anger on Chinese social media, with many users accusing the city of theft.

The Dali government laid the blame on two city officials. One of them, the director of the city health bureau, has been removed from his post, state television reported on Thursday.

Other state media also reported that Qingdao in Shandong province gave instructions to its customs to hold on to a shipment of masks and other medical products en route to the northeastern city of Shenyang from South Korea.

Qingdao kept the masks in a tit-for-tat move because it believed Shenyang was holding on to a separate shipment of masks en route to Qingdao, state-controlled China Business News reported on Thursday, citing internal documents.

But both cities have since resolved their dispute, with the two shipments on their way to the respective cities, China Business News said.

Medical resources are very stretched across China as cases of infection and the death toll rise.

Even hospitals in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, are facing dwindling supplies. The city, which has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of infection, has called on public support for protective supplies such as masks and suits.

The central government said on Saturday that Premier Li Keqiang had asked the European Union to help China get urgent medical supplies.

Reporting by Sophie Yu and Ryan Woo; Editing by Robert Birsel and Gareth Jones