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Kenny Zhang is a Fudan University alumnus, Jenny Li is a graduate of Hubei University, ChiChi Wang is an alumnus of the University of British Columbia and Zhenyu Cheng is a Wuhan University alumnus. All are residents of Canada.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. But two days later, an even more surprising statement: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang asked the European Union to provide medical supplies to fight the epidemic unfolding in China.

This was highly unusual – top Chinese officials are not particularly known for their willingness to ask for international aid. But it points to the gravity and severity of the situation.

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China is grappling with a severe public health challenge that is now outpacing the deadly SARS outbreak in 2003. As of today, more than 31,000 people in 28 countries and territories have been diagnosed with the new virus. The vast majority of those cases have emerged in China, where more than 600 people have died.

After 2019-nCoV was identified as originating in the city of Wuhan, the Chinese government took extraordinary measures to contain the outbreak. Wuhan and 13 surrounding cities have been locked down since Jan. 23 in a quarantine that affects more than 40 million people. It might be hard for Canadians to imagine this feat, but consider that Canada’s entire population is about 37 million.

However, the biggest challenge China faces is on the front lines. Doctors and nurses are racing against the clock and struggling to treat thousands of patients with dwindling supplies. Somehow, they are standing firm despite a shortage of hospital beds, staff, medicine and protective gear – even for themselves. Many doctors have worked throughout the day without drinking, eating or going to the bathroom simply to avoid replacing their protective suits. One doctor we know wore his son’s goggles to work for protection.

That the Chinese medical community is in mourning only heightens the anxiety. Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan Central Hospital ophthalmologist who was among the first to identify the disease, passed away Friday.

People pay respects at a memorial to Li Wenliang, one of the first doctors to warn about the coronavirus, in Hong Kong on Feb. 7, 2020.

LAM YIK FEI/The New York Times News Service

Canada has confirmed five cases of its own – three in Ontario, two in British Columbia – but it has been acting vigorously and vigilantly, monitoring the situation, providing travel advice and evacuating Canadians in China. It’s remarkably brave of Ottawa to follow the WHO’s recommendation not to ban Chinese and other international travellers from China from entering the country. Furthermore, as acts of racism against the Chinese-Canadian community increase, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made statements criticizing anti-Chinese sentiments and misinformation about the coronavirus. “This," he said, "is not something Canadians will ever stand for.”

These are admirable steps. But it is our belief that Canadians will only be truly safe when China wins its battle. And history may offer a good example of what Canada can still do to achieve this goal.

In the late 1930s, Canadian physician Norman Bethune brought modern medicine to rural China. He was credited with saving thousands of Chinese civilians and soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War, and for this he is revered even today in China. His story confirms the most effective way to save lives: supplying Canadian medical treatment to China.

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Doing so will require three courses of action. First, we would urge Ottawa to continue demonstrating respectful concern and vigorous support as China combats this virus during this critical period. Secondly, we would recommend the Canadian government play a vital role in facilitating the procurement of medical supplies for hospitals in affected regions. Trade-promotion agencies can help by adding a medical-supplies section to their information portals to connect qualified Canadian suppliers with Chinese buyers. Thirdly, we would encourage Canadian health-care professionals and specialists to work with Chinese and international experts in developing treatments and a vaccine.

Ottawa and Beijing have had their differences. A prominent Chinese executive is facing extradition to the U.S., while two Canadian citizens remain in jail in China and a crippling import ban hurts Canadian canola farmers. But Canadians remain highly respected and liked in China – in no small part because of the legacy of people like Dr. Bethune.

There is a Chinese saying: “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.” We hope we can focus on our shared humanity and give Chinese medical workers and citizens a hand during this extremely difficult time – for their sake, in the name of selflessness, in the spirit of Dr. Bethune.

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