Hard-won “A Million Masks” Team /The COVID-19 Response Actions of Chinese Students in North America

(This article is based on the recording of the interview with Huang Liqin, the supplies coordinator of “A Million Masks” team)

Many hospitals in Hubei province asked the whole society for assistance after Wuhan went into unprecedented lockdown. In response to this, some Chinese students at home and abroad launched volunteer activities in North America, Europe and other places, by doing their utmost to raise funds for front-line workers in Hubei province. The “A Million Masks” team is one of these organizations which is mainly composed of students in North America.

These overseas students took responsibility and expressed their patriotism, but we can hardly imagine how difficult it can be for them to do this.

Huang Liqin is currently a sophomore studying law at Carlton College in the United States, meanwhile he is also the supplies coordinator of “A Million Masks” team, whose main job is to search for supplies and inspect them. Although his family is in Guangzhou, Huang was born in Hubei, where now also live a lot of his relatives. “Half of my family members are engaged in medical career, and many of them work on the frontline of war against the spread of the virus.” Not wanting his family to suffer physical injuries, Huang participated in “A Million Masks”. The name “A Million Masks” is a vision for this group of international students. “It doesn’t matter whether the goal of collecting a million masks will be achieved or not, we’re working on it.”

We are working on it

The “A Million Masks” team is made up of nearly 100 individuals, with 12 individuals in the core team and more than 50 individuals in external support team. All members are students, like undergraduates and doctoral students. Busy as they are, they are still volunteering to work on this for about 14 hours a day. As for Huang himself—he only slept an average of 4 hours a day from January 22(American Time) and even fell ill twice during the period.

In the early stage, the team called on North American students to purchase supplies in supermarkets, which they called “bulk cargo”. But when they actually started buying just on the very next day—January 23, it ended up that, all the supplies were either already transferred back to China, or hoarded by Americans who realized the severity. Therefore, the quantity of materials which “bulk cargo” collected is very limited. However, as more and more people came to help, their hard work paid off. The first batch of materials gathered was several hundred kilograms, the second batch about one or two tons, and the third batch was almost similar to the second one. “We all work hard, but we don’t have an efficient plan.” As a result, the team focused on finding wholesale supplies, docking with donors and transporting supplies. As of February 23, The Million Masks has helped to donate a total number of 1.15 million items, including masks, protective clothing, shoe covers, gloves, protective caps, goggles and respirators. The value is around $2.5 million, and the market price is between $7.5 million and $10 million. On average, they helped donors cut one-third of the market price for each product. The first 280,000 pieces of protective clothing were $5 each and they cut it down to $4 each. The Million Masks team has successfully helped the donors get a better price.

Cheated and Anti-counterfeiting

The path of finding suppliers and retaining the source of supplies is not always smooth. There are almost 20 fraudsters that we already met when looking for supplies. In order to meet the domestic requirements of the “three certificates “(production permit, business license, product testing report), many of the fraudsters pieced the certificates together ” You may see that his last certificate is from Brazil, this one is from Poland, the next one is from Britain, then he got a fake’ three certificates’ . It is difficult for us to distinguish truth form falsehood, and not all companies have their own translating teams, like Alibaba and Tencent—we had to build one ourselves. Now our team can translate from eight to ten foreign languages, including Urdu and other minority languages.

“The most detestable manufacturer we meet comes from Ukraine, who tries to sell masks with so-called ‘three certificates’ which were originally licensed to a pump for liquid metal”. “Some of those forged certificates look real and perfect enough whereas we still noticed one problem: the date of the test report. It was 26th Jan, 2020, on Sunday, when the testing room was supposed to be off duty.”

The experience of being defrauded motivated the team to form an anti-counterfeiting taskforce, for the sake of preventing more flow of false information into the market. “Some people come to us for selling even with video clips shot by others online, on which we could figure out that the products are not the one we need by only one glimpse. Others tell us they have around 4 to 5 million masks in Type 1860 in Netherlands, while it is definitely impossible because the general population of Netherlands isn’t that much.” Members of the taskforce were busying in other voluntary jobs at the same time, so they didn’t update the information on their website instantly. “But what we can do is to share that false information in our social media.”

Disclosure of Supply Information

Except the fraud, what made the team most anxious was the leakage of source of supplies. They feared that some dealers with illegal or disgraceful intention once got the information, would steal a march on the team and do the fraudulent buying and resale for high profit. At the beginning, the team once found a supplier with 3,400,000 protection suits while other buyers came and tried to win these suits at a higher price and ship them back to Britain. “It was 29th Jan, when US government suddenly releases the travel ban which made those buyers finally gave up.” “Then some local volunteers helped us to check the supplies on the spot which led to the leakage of location of warehouse. Many dealers flooded in, contacting the supplier, which left great pressure on our supplier.” Luckily, one of the team members has been a friend of the supplier. So these supplies were kept and sold to us, the “Millions of Masks”.

Most of the suppliers the team made contact with were pretty nice. “At present we’ve got a supplier in cooperation, who is a partner of one plastic supplier for 3M Company; that’s why he could help us to reach the supplies by inside access through that plastic supplier. Once, a total of 50,000 facial masks in Type 1860 were available. Someone else has ordered them earlier. The problem was that one of our purchasers in China wanted to get those masks in advance, which was undoubtedly against the spirit of contract. That purchaser was in emergency. And our supplier has always been so kind to coordinate the issue.”

“The primary purpose for them (the domestic enterprises) is to improve their performance instead of initiating donation itself.”

The process of contacting the donors and the suppliers has been such twists and turns. Millions of Masks has its own logistics, with its partner–a trade company helping the team to carry out the customs clearance procedure. That explains why the donations towards China could pass through the Green Channel (Nothing to Declare).

In terms of contact, donation and procurement, we often say that “non-professionals lead professionals”. Many people just follow the list to purchase without knowing the specific standards of the supplies (according to “Notice on the production and use of protection suits during the epidemic” released by the China State Council). Most of the donors are looking for masks in Type 1860 produced by 3M Company, what we called “small green”. Actually the production capacity of Type 1860 masks only accounts for 1% of the N95 masks, 90% of which  has already been in China. In the rest 10% in the foreign market, US government took away 50-60%. In other words, only 0.4% of the Type 1860 masks are left in the whole market for all of us including governments around the world to purchase. But a question remains as you still find it hard to find the source of supplies. Therefore, the price for a single Type 1860 mask could be up to 7$.”

“Some donors just insisted the standard of supplies stubbornly, even if they couldn’t buy anything under that standard. For example, we provide some brands of facial masks for them, which are capable enough to resist virus including SARS, H1N1 and the recent COVID-19. However, some of them only recognize the Type 1860 mask.”

“They do not see those purchases as a way to make pledges; they see them as a way to achieve better performance at work.”

Apart from masks, the same goes for protective suit. “They (the buyers) would speculate the use of a suit by its name,” says Huang, “They assume if it is labeled ‘chemsplash’, it is for chemical protection. But in fact, if you read the verification standards, it is in line with EN14126 virus protection standard and EN14605 seals standard, thus can be used as medical protection. They (the suits) are no different to 4565 protective suit recommended by 3M procurement standards, if any, they do not have hats, but the hats can be produced by domestic manufactures. It takes less fabric and effort to make a hat than a whole suit, and we actually have them prepared.” “The biggest problem is that they do not see those purchases as a way to make pledges, they see them as a way to achieve better performance at work.”

“In addition to brand and model, many pledging companies doubt the lack of the ‘three certificates’—but it is almost impossible to get them in the US.” Huang added, “Most US medical manufacturers do not keep inventory because of the high warehouse management fees, so they sell their products directly to dealers who purchase in bulk. In other words, the ‘three certificates’ are in the hands of the manufacturers, the standard according to which we are supposed to purchase is actually the one that we should buy directly in hand of the factory. However, on January 31 the United States banned all manufacturers form exporting their products, which made the ‘three certificates’ impossible to get. Some companies are willing to take a step back and settle with other credentials we gave them, like product certificate, but most of the products we pledged do not have ‘three certificates’.

The process of sourcing, docking and pledging did not go smoothly, other than that, the team has to deal with criticisms from domestic social platforms such as Weibo and Zhihu. “Many people in China do not have a good impression of overseas Chinese students. To put it frank, the people, who are least expected to reach out to are us overseas students,” Huang continues:” Sometimes we are deemed as ‘foreign forces’. When we first started, rumors were that some people on the front line talked about closing the overseas pledging channel and not accepting help from the ‘foreign forces’. Rumors as they were, they still reflected an attitude in China at home. For years we have been finding ways to boost our senses of national confidence, but I feel like we are going the wrong way, because every now and then we are stabbed in the back by our fellow countrymen. It is a conspiracy theory catalyzed by distance.”

“I probably will not do it again unless the life and health of my family is threatened,” Huang concludes, “firstly it has been really exhausting for me. It took a toll on my own health. I fell ill twice, my life is basically in a mess, and all my personal plans are disrupted. Secondly, I am quite disheartened. Many people at home do not have practical consideration and problem-solving skills. People are not trying to solve problems, but to avoid any risks. It is impractical for all our goods to be 100 percent problem-free, even qualified goods with ‘three certificates’ can go wrong, it is illogical to ask for perfection. We also feel that the whole process is too arduous, it is rather painful to stick with a bunch of people whom you wouldn’t normally work with, whom you don’t like and don’t get along with. At last, some people feel like they can earn respect by doing nothing but pointing fingers. It’s unbelievably absurd that even a philanthropist like Han Hong was slandered, when i heard this I just wanted to quit.

A lot of people think that since they have money, they are the ones who are actually doing the public good—but the current problem is that, no matter how high the price you offer, you couldn’t buy the things you need. And those “rich” people do not see us as doing the public good by searching, checking and verifying goods for them.

“A Million Masks” team will not stop what they are doing until the pandemic is fully contained. They have already begun shifting their focus to the United States, where the pandemic is  brewing. The team will record their experience in the US and make it public in the media in the future.

(Translated: Jeanette Zhou, Leting Gu, Irene Liu; Proofreading: Ruthy Xu)

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