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Home / World News / China’s first tryst with outbreak lockdown, masks was about 110 years ago

China’s first tryst with outbreak lockdown, masks was about 110 years ago

On social media, especially on WeChat groups – and that’s true for much of China – worried citizens are now furiously ordering packets of masks online.

world Updated: Jan 27, 2020 19:22 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
A policeman wearing a face mask takes a tourist's temperature at the Qinhuai scenic zone in Nanjing in eastern China's Jiangsu province. The virus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan, already on lockdown, has banned most vehicles downtown.
A policeman wearing a face mask takes a tourist's temperature at the Qinhuai scenic zone in Nanjing in eastern China's Jiangsu province. The virus-hit Chinese city of Wuhan, already on lockdown, has banned most vehicles downtown.(AP PHOTO.)

Beijing is running out of the humble surgical mask.

Several shops in my neighbourhood, which is some 7 km east of Tiananmen Square the heart of the city, have been emptied of it in the past 24 to 36 hours over fears of the novel Coronavirus outbreak and a lockdown.

On social media, especially on WeChat groups – and that’s true for much of China – worried citizens are now furiously ordering packets of masks online.

Not always with success.

Mask manufacturing factories are working at half or less their capacity because of the ongoing Chinese New Year (CNY) holidays, and it will take a few days before they are able to crank up production.

Worse, it is happening in Wuhan, the ground zero of the novel Coronavirus outbreak. Along with protective suits for medical workers, masks are in short supply in the embattled city.

Here are some numbers on the sale of masks this past week from the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post: Sellers on Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao sold 80 million masks on January 21 and 22 alone. Alibaba rival JD.com also reportedly sold 126 million masks.

It is ironic that China is running out of masks, the very country where exactly around 110 years ago, ahead of that year’s LNY, anti-epidemic masks were, by some accounts, used for the first time.

Over the years, masks have become China’s – actually, much of east Asia’s – symbol of its ongoing fight against pathogens and pollution.

I was researching online for information on the history of surgical masks in China when I came across a tweet and photos put out by Tong Bingxue, historian and author of the “History of Photo Studios in China (1859-1956)”.

Tong mentioned a certain Dr. Wu Lien-the, a “…Malayan-Chinese doctor” who had urged the then Imperial government in China to shut down railway services out of Harbin in northeastern China before the Spring Festival 1911 “…preventing the spread of a Pneumonic Plague outbreak and saved hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives, and first introduced “anti-plague” masks in China”.

Dr. Wu was also possibly the pioneer of China’s “lockdown” or isolation idea to contain infectious diseases.

“Of particular concern was the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday, which in the new era of railroads had started to become a great annual migration of people travelling across the country to see their families,” writer Jeremiah Jenne wrote about the doctor’s idea to prevent people from travelling in the Los Angeles Review of Books’ China Channel.

“Had the epidemic gone unchecked, allowing holiday rail passengers to spread the disease to the rest of China could have meant a catastrophic loss of life and possibly precipitated a global health crisis,” Jenne wrote.

More than 100 years later, it is uncannily familiar.