These Women Were Told Their Help Wasn’t Needed. They Didn’t Listen.

— Sakura Chan, founder of the nonprofit GirlsUp

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In January, the coronavirus crisis in Wuhan, China, was desperate. The virus had hit its peak and sick patients filled the wards while more lined up in the cold waiting for treatment.

Four hundred miles away in Shanghai, Sakura Chan, a 29-year-old fashion designer, was struck by images from Wuhan: the chapped hands of medical workers, reddened from dehydrating sanitizers and soap, and the deep impressions and blisters that goggles and N-95 masks left on their faces. Some were online, calling for better personal protective equipment and supplies.

“We looked at the photos and tried to guess what they would need,” Ms. Chan said. And when she couldn’t find masks to donate, she and a team of about 20 volunteers sent sanitary pads to medics in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province that had been placed under lockdown.

“No one was really talking about the supplies used in daily life,” Ms. Chan said.

Ms. Chan is the founder of the nonprofit GirlsUp, which hosts discussions covering issues like gender identity, sexual harassment and navigating male-dominated industries.

We thought since we have a platform for women, “maybe we should focus on getting products female hospital workers would need.”

The group partnered with another Shanghai women’s group, Biede Girls, and formed a donation drive called the Firefly Plan. Some of the GirlsUp members had already mailed packages of supplies to Wuhan, but joined the group to help coordinate larger shipments to hospitals amid widespread travel bans.

At first, hospital employees rebuffed their offers, saying there was no shortage of menstrual pads in supermarkets and pharmacies. Privately, Ms. Chan wondered if the hospitals were hesitant to accept unsolicited donations after their public calls for protective gear had been shut down by local officials.

But over time, more hospitals began to accept their offers, saying that it would be most helpful if the group could mail supplies directly.

Many of their donations of pads and period underwear — designed to absorb blood — were funneled to gynecological hospitals that served pregnant women and older women. They also found suppliers who donated disinfectants, hand lotions and face creams — and added those to the distribution.

One of the most challenging parts was organizing deliveries during a lockdown that banned most ground transportation. Cars were not allowed to enter Hubei Province, where the hospitals were, so the group had to secure road passes and permission letters. They also had to persuade nervous delivery drivers to travel long distances and navigate numerous roadblocks. They gave them tips on how they could avoid getting infected and how to hand off donations to local volunteers or hospital employees with minimal social contact.

Their efforts gained attention. Local volunteers in Wuhan reached out and helped them coordinate the deliveries. Individuals offered to pay for supplies. One young man generously but mistakenly ordered disposable underwear instead of menstrual pads.

While she was glad that people were paying more attention to female doctors and nurses on the front lines, Ms. Chan also cringed at how these medical professionals were being portrayed.

“You don’t have to shave off all your hair. They were forced to do that, you can tell,” Ms. Chan said, referring to the glazed expressions of the nurses in the video.

It would be a different matter if the nurses had chosen to cut their hair short for convenience, as some had described doing in social media posts and interviews, she said. But she found the filming difficult to watch, believing that they were forced to perform gestures of piety and devotion on camera.

“They were treated like objects or idols, forced to sacrifice themselves just so the whole hospital could be praised.”

As Firefly’s visibility grew, its donation drives began to attract criticism online. Some detractors accused them of helping only women and sidelining men with their donations of feminine hygiene products. Others criticized them for donating hygiene products rather than medical supplies, saying there was no need to devote resources to something that wasn’t in short supply.

“At first, no one cared about women’s needs. We were a small Band-Aid, addressing a small part of the population,” Ms. Chan said. “Then suddenly we were a topic of discussion.”

And now as the coronavirus outbreak in China slows, so does the need for feminine hygiene products.

“If they don’t need supplies anymore, then our mission is complete,” she said.

Readers, have you heard about groups in your local, or broader, community helping out in the time of coronavirus? Who are they, and what are they doing? Write to us at

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