The growing number of Covid-19 cases in the Xinjiang region has raised fears that the epidemic may reach secret internment camps where China has reportedly held more than a million people belonging to a Muslim minority.
Chinese health officials reported 68 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday, including 57 in far western Xinjiang, bringing the region’s total reported to 235. After a five-month streak without infection in Xinjiang, the outbreak which started nearly two weeks ago, it appeared to settle in the capital, Urumqi, and spread to Kashgar about 300 km away.
The region is home to China’s program of mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Turkish Muslims, which has sparked international condemnation and accusations that the detention, abuse, surveillance and restriction of religious and cultural beliefs constitute genocide. cultural. The charges are vigorously denied by Beijing despite mounting evidence and international pressure. He claims his policy is to fight 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 associated with the ability for officials to cover up outbreaks means that any outbreak in the camps can never be made public.
“I doubt we will ever know that,” she said. “But the fact that there is community transmission is only a matter of time, if it hasn’t already happened,” she said.
Last week, Urumqi went into “wartime” mode, with parts of the city designated as medium or high risk. Some public transport and most flights have been suspended and mass tests have started for all residents. District authorities have also “reinforced [housing] management of complexes, ”which included disinfection of public spaces and restrictions on people visiting other households. Group activities have been suspended and all residents have been urged not to travel outside the city.
Dr Michael Clarke, associate professor at the National Security College of the Australian National University, said the outbreak in two remote towns and high rates of community transmission suggested there were “several places in the region with potential hot spots ”.
“Perhaps the biggest risk is that you have people working as security guards, camp officials, who can act as community dispersers in the camps. If this happens, you envision quite serious health risks for those held in re-education camps. ”
Hayes said the centers that have been shown on Chinese public television appear to have dorms with six to eight beds, while reports from people who have been in camps have spoken of overcrowded cells with up to 60 people, from poor sanitary conditions and inadequate food and clothing. and abuse.
She said, “All of these factors increase people’s vulnerability, and they are under incredible distress and strain that contributes to someone’s immune system. They don’t even need to have a comorbidity. The simple stress they are under increases the chances of very negative results if they contract Covid. “
How authorities would respond to an outbreak likely varied from center to center, academics said, depending on who is managing and level of health care already in place.
The Xinjiang epidemic also posed a risk for minority groups who were not detained.
“Another source of vector for the wider Uyghur community is the Becoming Family program, in which you are assigned a Han Chinese … and you have to have the person in your home,” said Hayes, referring to a stay program at home. compulsory inhabitant where the Communist Party members spend about a week every two months with residents of Xinjiang.
If an epidemic did occur among the Uyghur population, particularly if it occurred in the camps, there was a chance it would never come to light, Hayes and Clarke said.
“I don’t think it would be surprising to see cover-ups or underreports,” Clarke said.