Coronavirus Infections Mount to Four Dozen in Xinjiang Capital Amid New Outbreak

By Joshua Lipes
uyghur-police-altay-coronavirus-feb-2020.jpg Police officers wearing protective face masks ride horses on their way to visit residents who live in remote areas of Xinjiang's Altay region, to promote the awareness of the coronavirus, Feb. 19, 2020.
(STR / AFP) / China OUT

A coronavirus outbreak in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) continued to spread Monday, as the number of cases increased to nearly four dozen in the capital Urumqi and officials confirmed the first case in the city of Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi).

The XUAR Health Commission announced 17 new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the XUAR on Monday, bringing the total number to at least 47 since infections were first reported in the region on July 15—months since the last positive test.

The new cases sent Urumqi into a lockdown on Friday, as authorities canceled nearly all flights in and out of the city of 3.5 million, shut down public transportation, and ordered residents to remain in their homes. The Urumqi municipal government has not issued an update on the number of infected residents since last week.

The official Global Times newspaper cited the health commission as saying authorities had discovered 16 patients in Urumqi and nine asymptomatic viral carriers infected with COVID-19 on Monday. It said the capital now has a total of 50 asymptomatic carriers—a classification that the Chinese government does not consider a confirmed infection.

The commission also confirmed the first patient in Kashgar, who it said was from Urumqi, according to the report.

On Sunday, health officials in the capital announced “wartime” measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, with a focus on the city’s Tengritagh (Tianshan) district, where residents are now being forced to undergo mass health screenings. Authorities have also issued tighter restrictions on travel in and out of the district, instituted disinfection protocols, and are assisting residents with delivery of necessities.

The source of the new outbreak is still unknown. More than 1,800 health care workers have been deployed in Urumqi to carrying out city-wide testing. Local authorities said that as of Monday, more than 3,000 residents were under medical observation.

On Friday, RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with police, medical workers and hotel staff in Urumqi, who described tightening controls on vehicle movements and travelers.

Throughout the weekend and on Monday, however, amid indications of a clampdown on information, RFA was unable to reach sources in the region.

Detainees at risk

It is unclear when restrictions in Urumqi might be lifted. Chinese authorities have instituted strict measures throughout the country as part of a bid to eradicate the virus after initially drawing criticism for a lack of transparency in handling the outbreak which emerged in the city of Wuhan, in Hubei province, in late 2019. China has an official total of slightly more than 85,000 cases of COVID-19, but the coronavirus has gone on to infect 14.5 million people worldwide.

Rights groups and experts have expressed particular concern about the potential impact of an outbreak in the XUAR, where authorities are believed to have detained more than 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017. They say limited access to health care and cramped conditions in the camps could allow the virus to spread virtually unchecked.

Beijing describes its three-year-old network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.

As evidence of abuses in the XUAR continues to mount, Western governments have increasingly called out China for its policies in the region.

Earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration leveled sanctions against several top Chinese officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Xinjiang, including regional party secretary Chen Quanguo, under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.

The move, which marked the first time Washington had sanctioned a member of China’s powerful Politburo, followed Trump’s enactment last month of the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 (UHRPA), which passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress at the end of May. The legislation highlights arbitrary incarceration, forced labor, and other abuses in the XUAR and provides for sanctions against the Chinese officials who enforce them.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry announced retaliatory sanctions targeting republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, republican representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback, and the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China advisory panel.

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