A Chinese guard wearing a face mask amid concerns over the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus holds a thermal gun to check the body temperature of visitors at the entrance of a restaurant area in Shanghai, March 21, 2020. Photo: AFP/Hector Retamal

SYDNEY – Australia has threatened to jail anyone caught sending face masks and other vital medical equipment to China after Beijing scooped up tons of the gear in a global buying spree during the onset of the Covid-19 virus.

China imported about 2.5 billion healthcare items, including visors, masks,  gloves and ventilators, between January 24 and February 29, according to a report by China’s national customs authority, leaving frontline medical staff in scores of countries without protective equipment just as the virus hit.

Now those Covid-19 infected nations are having to buy it back at often highly inflated prices, according to various reports, handing the Chinese a diplomatic if not commercial coup as they dictate where supplies of essential life-saving equipment is and isn’t shipped.

Critics have accused Beijing of using so-called “face mask diplomacy” to split the European Union by shipping equipment to certain nations on more favorable terms than others, while leaving trade war adversary the United States, currently the pandemic’s epicenter, in a comparative lurch.

Some countries, moreover, have been offered medical equipment aid while others must pay above pre-pandemic market rates, depending on their state of relations with Beijing. That distribution has become more crucial as medical experts flip-flop on previous guidance on the need to wear face masks to prevent the disease’s spread.

A face mask-wearing Chinese doctor in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said on April 1 in Canberra that a “global alliance” had been forged after consultations with other global trade ministers to ensure that the gear reached the countries most in need. It’s not clear yet, however, that alliance will work in practice and which nations are involved.

“But crucially we’re working together with other countries to make sure that we don’t just have what we need, but also that we can hopefully supply what is needed into less developed countries and those who are even more vulnerable to coronavirus,” he said in a radio interview.

In a move to stop price-gouging, Australia said that anyone found shipping face masks, hand sanitizer, medical gloves, goggles, visors or alcohol wipes to China could be jailed for up to five years and have the items confiscated.

High-end Chinese property developer Greenland Group, which has ties to China’s ruling Communist Party, has confirmed that it bought three million surgical masks, 500,000 pairs of gloves and supplies of sanitizer and antibacterial wipes in Australia and other countries that were airfreighted from Sydney before the global pandemic was announced. 

Another Chinese real estate firm, Risland, shipped 90 tons of medical supplies to Wuhan from Perth on February 8, according to photos that it supplied to Chinese-language newspapers in Australia. One photo shows employees holding a banner in front of the freight that declares support for Wuhan.     

Risland’s LinkedIn page showed in early February pallet-loads of medical safety gear being stored in a warehouse ready for shipment from Australia to China. Photo: LinkedIn

Greenland said that it sent the supplies in late January and early February because China “at the time, was the epicenter of the outbreak.” The firm said that is now sending some back to help Australian medical efforts.

“Greenland Australia also recognizes that Australian people are currently at risk with the more recent and ongoing domestic spread of Covid-19, so the company is focused on helping people in this country through a similar effort that [was] undertaken for China,” it said in a statement.

“We are working to procure a wide range of medical supplies that can be donated to the Australian medical community to help support their efforts to help further slow the spread of Covid-19.”

With many countries desperately short of protective gear, Chinese traders have put tons of medical equipment on the market — but at a steep cost.  Reports from Cambodia and the Philippines suggest that samples of some respirators have been offered for five times their original market prices.

A buying frenzy fueled by extraordinary backroom cloak and dagger deals has led to some ugly diplomatic spats as shortages spread.

On April 4 European nations accused the US of using “wild west methods” to secure supplies after a shipment of face masks to Germany was suddenly diverted in Bangkok. Thailand is a long-time strategic ally of the United States.

Workers produce medical gloves at a factory in China’s eastern Anhui province on March 23, 2020. Photo: AFP/China Out/Stringer

It isn’t immediately clear what happened with the shipment, but the insinuation is that the US offered more money mid-transit.

Germany’s Interior Minister for state Andreas Geisel said the 200,000 face masks went to the US instead in what he called “an act of modern piracy.” “Even in times of global crisis there should be no wild west methods,” he said.

Meanwhile, products are being dumped on global markets with little or no regulatory control, prompting warnings of poor quality and a counterfeiting boom that likewise has roots in China.

European countries have complained of ineffective Chinese-made tests kits and Australia has seized 800,000 face masks that it said were either defective or fakes.

“We started seeing this stuff arriving roughly three weeks ago when news of the pandemic was really taking off,” a border official told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “The dodgy material is coming via air cargo because there is a backlog of sea freight at Australian ports.”

The global shortage of masks is likely to worsen now that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans cover their faces when leaving home, especially when near other people.

Australia has sent military personnel to a factory that manufactures face masks in the hope of doubling domestic output, but still relies heavily on imports of respirators and other protective gear, mostly from China.