Footage of government officials in Wuhan appearing to take face masks intended for health workers battling the highly infectious coronavirus has fuelled a growing wave of anger over how Chinese authorities have handled the outbreak.
Images of medical staff making protective equipment out of rubbish bags, sleeping in hospitals, and crying in frustration and exhaustion have dominated Chinese social media over the last two weeks, inspiring an outpouring of sympathy and donations of supplies.
A video posted by Beijing News on Sunday appeared to show government workers taking some of those donated supplies. A statement from the Wuhan government said that personnel attending a meeting on emergency supplies on Saturday had “received masks and other related protective supplies” from China’s Red Cross, which is overseeing donations.
“We will further standardise the collection, storage, and distribution of protective gear for frontline workers … Thank you to the media for their attention and supervision,” the statement said, according to images of it posted by Beijing News.
Other photos showed officials wearing specialised N95 respirator masks in a meeting with doctors who wore surgical masks.
Online commentators were quick to criticise the statement and footage, generating more than 2m views for comments with the hashtag “Wuhan government responds to taking personnel face masks”.
One user wrote: “These supplies are for the doctors, not the government.” Another said: “They are still using this completely insincere bureaucratic way of talking to the people? Disappointed.” Another: “Shameless … Have some dignity. The whole country is watching.”
Others pointed out the privileges of officials over the general public. Across China, people have struggled to buy masks and other protective equipment. A Weibo user posted under the video: “If you can’t buy masks, where do you think ordinary citizens go to buy them?”
Local and central government officials are facing a growing wave of public anger over the handling of the new coronavirus, which has now killed more than 300 people and infected at least 14,380.
Local officials are bearing the brunt of that frustration. In Hubei, a health official has been shown fumbling basic questions about the number of infections or available hospital beds in her city of Huanggang. She was later sacked. On Sunday, state media reported that 337 party officials in Hubei had been “punished”, including six county-level officials who had been fired.
Citizens blame officials for claiming for weeks that the virus was manageable and ignoring as well as covering up obvious signs that the outbreak was serious.
A doctor in Wuhan, who tried to warn colleagues and friends about the virus in December before being silenced by police, said on Saturday that he had been infected.
Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at Wuhan central hospital, was one of eight doctors that local police punished for “rumour-mongering” when they attempted to sound the alarm about the virus in December, weeks before officials admitted the seriousness of the outbreak.
“Everything is settled now. It’s finally confirmed,” Li wrote on Weibo, delivering news that angered yet more Chinese. He wrote in another post: “I have seen a lot of support and encouragement for me online, which has really helped my emotional state. Thank you everyone.”