Overseas orders for body bags soar
Global pandemic draws rising inquiries from hospitals, middlemen: firms
Published: Apr 23, 2020 09:23 PM

Healthcare workers wheel a patient to a triage tent at the Maimonides Medical Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, the United States, April 19. Photo:Xinhua

Chinese companies have seen rising demand for body bags from around the world, including the US and France, with inquiries and orders exceeding production capacity, as the relentless COVID-19 takes a rising toll the world over, two insiders told the Global Times on Thursday.

While some of the inquiries and orders came directly from hospitals of foreign countries, many of them also came from overseas middlemen, who might be seeking to profit, according to the insiders. 

A manager of Tianhongshouchuang Technology Co, a large body bag producer based in North China's Hebei Province, told the Global Times on Thursday that in the past two weeks, he's had many phone calls from abroad asking about orders and supplies.

"We have been receiving up to 200 phone calls a day in recent weeks inquiring body bags, while it used to be only a few calls before the outbreak," said the manager, who asked to be referred to by his surname Li. Most of the calls are from the US, Li said.

"Some people calling from the US asking us to deliver 2 million body bags within 10 days," Li said. "Our total capacity is 1,000 a day, so we can't do this in such a short time, and we also have orders from others that we must fill."

As employees are working overtime, the company has turned down some new big orders so that existing ones can be filled on time, Li said.

The rising orders come as the death toll from COVID-19 surges globally. As of Thursday, the coronavirus had killed more than 172,000 people worldwide, according to the latest data from the World Health Organization. 

With the surging death toll, some areas face shortages of body bags. In New York City, morgue workers had to use sheets to carry the deceased because body bags ran out, the Mirror reported on Sunday. 

Given the surging demand, some foreign clients have tried to persuade Chinese companies that usually make protective gowns to make body bags.

A business manager surnamed Liu at a manufacturing and trade company in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province, told the Global Times that the company has been making protective clothing for surgery, but it is opening production lines to make body bags after a medical organization in France with which it has long had cooperation made such a request.

"Since the materials for making protective clothing are similar to those used in body bags, we can add production lines rather quickly," Liu said.

Meanwhile, Liu's company has been receiving overseas phone calls in the past 10 to 15 days asking about production capacity and prices for body bags.

"The orders basically come from governments but they are entrusted to trading companies and purchasing agents," Liu said. He said that most of the calls are just inquiries, with few real deals yet. 

"Most of the callers do not know much about this sector and they do not know much about export standards."

Li said that unlike protective clothing and masks, qualifications for body bags are different, depending on the materials. This means that factories making related items such as umbrellas, tents and car covers might enter the business if necessary.

Many Chinese factories also have no experience in exporting body bags, as they mostly focus on domestic hospitals and funeral homes, industry insiders told the Global Times.

Like the situation for masks, gloves and other medical supplies, with the surging demand for body bags comes price-gouging, according to insiders.

"Some overseas middlemen are calling from abroad asking us if we can deliver tens of millions of pieces to them at one time. That is very unreasonable in terms of production capacity, not to mention that current global transportation is prioritized for medical items, and that does not include body bags," Li said.

He said that some middlemen may want to stock up on body bags and sell them after the price rises, which Li cannot accept.

"Each body bag costs 10-30 yuan ($1.4-4.2), and the costs for production and materials take up to 80 percent," Li said. "We don't do this for money and to see prices go up… that's the last thing we want to see."

In order to balance orders and make sure the company can deliver the goods on time, Liu's company generally does not accept orders of more than 10,000 pieces due to limited production capacity. 

"Body bag production is labor-intensive and it cannot be done on a large scale in a short time," he said.