‘The staff was at the airport ready to be shipped. We had it on the tarmac,’ said Manny Kapur. ‘Then the craziest thing happened’.
In a desperate bid in early March to get medical masks for the fight against COVID-19, a Toronto doctor and her friend arranged for five million masks to be shipped directly from a manufacturer in China. They took out a line of credit to pay the deposit as their masks spun off the line and were packed for Canada.
Dr. Elaine Chin and Manny Kapur closed the deal and made arrangements, including working with Canada’s federal and provincial governments in Ontario and B.C.
“The staff was at the airport ready to be shipped,” said Kapur. “We had it on the tarmac. I was hearing on the news about companies bringing in 10,000 masks, 5,000 masks — and we had five million masks coming.
“Then the craziest thing happened.”
I have no idea where that shipment went
Their shipment disappeared at Shanghai airport.
“We never got the shipment onto the airplane,” Chin said. “It turns out we were suddenly outbid.”
At the airport, a surprise and sudden offer four times the agreed price short-circuited their deal, they were told.
“To this day I have no idea where that shipment went,” Kapur said. “It’s like somebody pulled up with a truck, picked up our pallets and put them on a different plane and it disappeared and nobody will know because it was just cash changing hands.
“It was like the Wild West at the airport.”
To Chin, it sounded like “modern-day pirates.”
The panicked buying from governments and institutions around the world not only highlights the frenzy to secure protective equipment as the pandemic spread, but also the determination and generosity that rose to meet it.
Chin and Kapur never got those masks, but they did create a campaign that is raising funds for the COVID-19 fight.
Chin isn’t on the front lines of COVID-19 treatment, but she and her then-husband were during the SARS outbreak in 2003. As she watched the novel coronavirus pandemic spread, it rekindled her fear. She is now the medical director of Toronto’s Executive Health Centre and wanted to help.
At the same time, she had a patient with cancer whose aggressive treatments compromised her immune system. Chin wanted to give her surgical masks to protect her. Chin asked Kapur, who runs Xthetica, a wellness supply company, if he could get her patient a box of masks.
He made some calls and found they were already in short supply. He called a medical supply contact in Europe who told him they were ordering masks from China. He could do that too, he was told, but there was a minimum order.
He called Chin: “I can’t get you one mask, but I think I can get you two million.”
They had the beautiful audacity to try.
A few friends and clients donated and the two tapped personal lines of credit to make the down payment of US$500,000 for five million N95-equivalent masks.
They had their order confirmed on March 18. It was set to arrive March 23, Kapur said.
Government ministers and health officials took a keen interest when Chin and Kapur reached out about its importation; they started taking calls from federal, Ontario and B.C. ministers and officials who offered help, they said. Unexpected questions started: who was confirming the shipment hadn’t been replaced with counterfeit gear? Who was supervising it at the airport? Was there an armed escort?
Meanwhile, Chin and Kapur were lining up private donors to buy the masks and then donate them to hospitals to bypass the bureaucracy of purchasing procurement.
“It was all working out just fine. Then it all blew up in the ether,” Chin said. “We came to a standstill. It was heartbreaking, but we didn’t give up.”
When she broke the news of the hijacked shipment to her biggest donors, they suggested she find another way to use the money to help in the fight, Chin said.
Through the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, from where she graduated, she started Masking Together Challenge, which is raising funds to support three elements in the COVID-19 fight.
They are still working to provide personal protective equipment for health-care providers, just probably not from China, and added two other outlets for help: funding accommodations for medical trainees who need to isolate from family, and for research into the novel coronavirus research and COVID-19.
It is all about protecting each other from COVID-19
Chin said it is designed to meet immediate and long-range goals.
“We need to make sure there is a safe sanctuary for residents and interns and fellows who are on the front line and still making student wages,” she said.
“The pandemic is an unprecedented event on a global scale. We need to dig deep and think about solutions, and how we can each do our part.
“We started with looking for masks, but it is all about protecting each other from COVID-19.”
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