Covid-19 outbreak in Xinjiang prompts fears of spread inside China’s camps

The Guardian, 28 July 2020

Below is an article published by The Guardian, Photo Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

Rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in the Xinjiang region has sparked fears the outbreak could reach the secretive internment camps where China is believed to have detained more than a million Muslim minority people.

On Monday, Chinese health authorities reported 68 new cases of Covid-19, including 57 in the far western region of Xinjiang, bringing the area’s reported total to 235. After a reported five-month streak of no infections in Xinjiang, the outbreak that began almost two weeks ago has appeared to take hold in the capital city of Urumqi, and spread to Kashgar about 300km away.

The region is home to China’s program of mass incarceration of Uighur and other Turkic Muslims, which has drawn international condemnation and accusations that the detention, abuse, surveillance and restrictions on religious and cultural beliefs amount to cultural genocide. The accusations are strenuously denied by Beijing despite growing evidence and international pressure. It claims its policies are to counter terrorism, but the camps are kept secret from the public and international inspectors.

Dr Anna Hayes, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at James Cook University in Australia, said the level of secrecy coupled with the potential for officials to cover up outbreaks, means any outbreak in the camps may never be made public.

“I doubt we would ever know,” she said. “But the fact there is community transmission, it’s only a matter of time, if it hasn’t happened already,” she said.

Last week, Urumqi went into “war-time” mode, with parts of the city designated medium or high risk. Some public transport and most flights were suspended, and mass testing began for all residents. District authorities also “strengthened [housing] compound management”, which included disinfection of public areas and restrictions on people visiting other households. Group activities were suspended, and all residents urged against travel out of the city.

Dr Michael Clarke, associate professor at the Australian National University’s national security college said the outbreak in two distant cities and high rates of community transmission suggested there were “multiple places throughout the region with potential hotspots”.

“Perhaps the biggest risk is you’ll have people working as security guards, camp officials, who may act as community spreaders into the camps. If that happens you’re looking at fairly grave health risks for those individuals held in the reeducation camps.”

Hayes said centres that have been shown on Chinese state TV appear to have dorms with six to eight beds, while reports from people who have been in camps have spoken of overcrowded cells with as many as 60 people, poor sanitary conditions and inadequate food and clothing, and mistreatment.

She said: “All these factors increase people’s vulnerability, and they’re under incredible distress and duress which factor into someone’s immune system. They don’t even have to have a comorbidity. Just the stress they’re under increases the chance of a very negative outcome if they get Covid.”

How authorities would respond to an outbreak probably varied from centre to centre, the academics said, depending on the officials running it and the level of healthcare already in place.

The Xinjiang outbreak also posed a risk to the minority groups who were not detained.

“Another source of vector for the wider Uighur community is the Becoming Family program where you’re allocated a Han Chinese person … and you have to have the person in your house,” Hayes said, referring to a program of compulsory homestays where Communist party members spend about a week every two months in the home of Xinjiang residents.

Should an outbreak occur in the Uighur population, particularly if it occurred in the camps, there was a chance it would never be revealed, both Hayes and Clarke said.

“I don’t think it would be surprising to see cover-ups or underreporting,” said Clarke.