Authorities in Atush (in Chinese, Atushi), in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), have fenced off the city's roads, leaving residents confined to their homes and running out of supplies, as they work to control the rapid spread of the deadly novel coronavirus (nCoV), which has been traced back to Hubei province’s Wuhan city.
On Jan. 23, Chinese state media announced the first confirmed infections in the XUAR—two men who had previously traveled to Wuhan—and by Tuesday, at least 29 people have been infected, including eight who are in serious condition and two who are in critical condition. Nearly 1,600 are under medical observation in the region after exhibiting symptoms associated with the virus.
The top court in the region recently issued guidelines that included severe punishments for people committing crimes such as “spreading rumors” and “using violence against medical personnel,” while local officials recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service that information about nCoV and how it has spread in the XUAR is considered a “state secret” and cannot be shared with the public.
But RFA recently spoke with two residents of Atush, in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, who said that on Jan. 31, authorities declared a state of emergency, rolling out two-meter (6.5-foot) fencing to block local intersections and ordering the city’s approximately 200,000 inhabitants to stay within their homes for roughly three weeks in a move aimed at blocking the threat from nCoV.
The residents, who discussed the situation with RFA on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal from local authorities, said they had not been notified of the plan ahead of time, and were therefore unable to gather food supplies or other necessities before the lockdown went into effect.
“They told us not to leave our houses, so we’re not, and they’ve blocked off the roads,” one Atush resident said, adding that the emergency measures had been in effect for “three or four days” already.
“We’re not going out. No one is going out. We’re all staying at home for now.”
The resident described the fencing as being deployed to “stop people from passing through … people from other places.”
“They’re gates that block streets off from one another … They’ve blocked off entrances, exits, and the roads themselves,” the resident added.
The resident said no one was informed of the plan by authorities ahead of time, and when it went into effect, it was explained as a measure to “stop a virus coming in from elsewhere.”
“If we can’t go out, we’re going to run out of food—no one’s selling anything out on the streets,” they said.
“We need to be able to go to the bazaar, but we need [official] papers for that, and what can we do since they won’t give us those papers?”
‘We can’t go outside’
A second resident of Atush confirmed that the city had been locked down.
“This is proving very inconvenient for us—we can’t even go out into the streets from our houses,” they said.
“They said we won’t be able to go out until Feb. 20 or so. They’re saying we can’t go outside.”
The second resident said there have been no confirmed cases of infection from the coronavirus in Atush, but authorities have announced at least four in the seat of Turpan (Tulufan) prefecture, two or three in Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture’s Korla (Kuerle) city, four in Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture’s Ghulja (Yining) city, and two in the XUAR capital Urumqi.
RFA also contacted medical staff in the seats of Kashgar (Kashi) and Altay prefectures, as well as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps-administrated Shihezi city, who said that special wards were being set up in hospitals there to deal with the outbreak, although they were unable to confirm whether any cases had been confirmed in any of the three cities.
Authorities have remained tight-lipped about the epidemic in the XUAR, where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been detained in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities that experts warned recently could lead to an epidemic.
A lack of transparency on the part of officials has been blamed for allowing the coronavirus to gain a solid foothold in Wuhan, leading authorities to shut down all transportation in and out of the city of 11 million people last month.
Despite the clampdown, China has seen the number of confirmed cases nationwide balloon to 20,492, with 427 deaths and 212 cases worldwide, including the first death outside of China, which occurred in the Philippines over the weekend, and one in the territory of Hong Kong on Tuesday.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.