Residents of Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining), in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), are going hungry under a quarantine meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), according to local sources, while officials are demanding payment in advance to bring them goods.
Last week, a video went viral on social media among ethnic Uyghurs in exile that purportedly showed a man yelling in the streets of Ghulja—presumably at local officials—about how he, his wife, and his child are “starving” because they have no food.
RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a Uyghur woman in Ghulja, in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, who confirmed that her family of four children and three adults living in the city’s Qaradong township has been unable to obtain enough food because of the quarantine on Monday, as the region saw its number of COVID-19 infections hold steady at 76, including two deaths.
“[The adults] are only eating one meal a day from morning to night,” she said, adding that they had done so for the “nearly 10 days” since the quaratine went into effect.
“Every morning, we just worry about the children having something to eat. My husband says we don’t need to eat, only the kids do. We’re having naan—just plain naan. We’re cooking things for the kids to eat, but we’re just eating naan.”
The woman, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from local authorities, said that her household lacks sufficient stores of flour, vegetables, and oil, and that she and others hadn’t eaten meat since the quarantine began.
She said that her eight-year-old daughter “became dizzy and passed out” as a result of not having enough to eat, adding that the girl “injured her head when she fell.”
“Truthfully, there are a lot of people struggling in our neighborhood,” she said.
“There are households with four, five children who are really struggling. I’ve encouraged them to ask for help [from the authorities].”
But the woman said that authorities have been either reluctant to help those confined to their home, or only willing to assist if they are paid for goods in advance.
“A woman in our neighborhood asked the cadres if they could bring her some coal [to heat her house],” she said.
“They apparently told her, ‘There’s no policy for that, but we’ll bring you some as soon as that policy’s in place.’”
In another incident, she said, authorities had brought a sack of flour to the family of a deaf and mute man, but refused to bring another when the first one ran out, suggesting that he had been hoarding goods.
Fears of exploitation
When asked whether the woman had reported her family’s situation to neighborhood officials, she said that she had not, because she feared being exploited for money.
“They say they’ll bring us things if we give them money, but they might just steal the money and not bring us anything,” she said.
Instead, neighbors “open their shops in the middle of the night” to skirt restrictions on movement and provide goods to those affected by the quarantine, she said.
A second source, who also declined to be named, confirmed to RFA that residents of Qaradong had been unable to obtain enough food since authorities placed the area under quarantine.
RFA spoke with Weli, the party secretary of Qaradong’s Huaguoshan residential district, who confirmed that “there are people who are complaining about a lack of food,” but suggested that they were blowing things out of proportion.
“Some of them are people worrying too much—if the food doesn't arrive on time, then they exaggerate the situation,” he said.
“Some of them are ill-intentioned people. They don’t like peace and are ready to cause trouble at any time. Some opportunistically create problems. We're taking measures against them.”
Weli did not provide details of how authorities were dealing with the people he referred to.
Reports of the food shortage in Ghulja came a week after local officials said that at least one member of a Uyghur family of four in Ghulja county—which has been entirely sealed off—had contracted COVID-19, in what would be the first confirmed case of the virus among the ethnic minority.
While it is possible that other Uyghurs may be infected with the virus and that the confirmed case may not be the first, Chinese state media does not include the ethnicity of those infected in reports.
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 the city in January.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.