Uyghur health workers from throughout one prefecture in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) are being forced to live in hotels in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) city set up as quarantine centers to treat patients infected with the coronavirus, according to sources.
Last week, a source told RFA’s Uyghur Service that authorities in Ghulja had assigned Uyghur doctors, nurses, and other personnel from hospitals across Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture—including the city’s Hospital of Uyghur Traditional Medicine—to work and reside in the makeshift centers beginning at the end of February.
Only ethnic Uyghur health workers have been assigned to the centers, they have not been allowed to return home since they were sent there, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source’s claims came as health officials in the XUAR published a paper on March 30 which listed Ghulja as having the second-highest rate of infections in the region after the capital Urumqi with 18 cases, all of whom recovered.
The paper said that authorities in the city had effectively stopped the spread of the virus responsible for infecting 76 people and left three people dead in the XUAR, according to official numbers, and that no new cases had been found there in recent weeks.
RFA recently spoke with several health officials in Ghulja who confirmed that Uyghur health workers had been sent to multiple hotels set up as quarantine centers in the city to treat patients of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We are a designated spot for virus testing, but we don’t have any patients right now,” a Uyghur employee of the Communist Party office of the Hospital of Uyghur Traditional Medicine told RFA in a telephone interview.
“The patients and personnel responsible for treatment are all at hotels,” she said.
When asked which hotels, the employee said she didn’t know, but that “there are people at a lot of hotels.”
“It’s not just one or two hotels, and we wouldn’t be able to find the names of all of them,” she said.
“We’ve supplied doctors, but we don’t know which hotels. We only know who we sent … All of our doctors have gone, and [higher-level officials] didn’t tell anything to our work unit.”
According to the website of the Hospital of Uyghur Traditional Medicine, 97 health workers are regularly on staff there.
A majority Han Chinese doctor from Ghulja’s Hospital of Chinese Traditional Medicine told RFA that his facility does not handle the treatment of coronavirus cases, although the Hospital of Uyghur Traditional Medicine and other hospitals do.
When asked whether his hospital had sent any health workers to the makeshift quarantine centers in the city’s hotels, like the Hospital of Uyghur Traditional Medicine had, the doctor said it hadn’t.
‘It’s a secret’
RFA asked an employee of the disease control center in the Ghulja city government’s propaganda office whether the coronavirus epidemic in Ili Kazakh remained serious, and she suggested that “it’s not really all that bad,” noting that local residents “are eating out and shopping” and “things are normal.”
But when asked why it was necessary to force Uyghur health workers to live and work at quarantine centers in Ghulja, she said, “we have other matters [to attend to].”
“There are a lot of things they’re doing that I can’t tell you about,” she said, before referring further questions to higher-level officials and hanging up the phone.
But an employee of the four-star Jinjiang Hotel, in a development zone on the outskirts of Ghulja, appeared to confirm that patients were being treated there, before refusing to answer further questions.
“I can’t tell you that—it’s a secret,” he said, when asked how many people were quarantined there and how many health workers were on site.
“How about you get in touch with the hospital itself … These are all things I can’t tell you about. They don’t get to go back home, and we don’t either.”
When asked whether a reporter could visit the hotel, the employee said staff there “won’t let you in,” and hung up.
Reports of hotels in Ghulja being used as quarantine centers are similar to those obtained by RFA in February by officials in Atush (Atushi), in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, who said at the time that at least 99 people had been quarantined at the city’s Yashin Hotel, with others possibly held under similar conditions in another guesthouse.
They also followed reports later that month from residents of Ghulja who said they were going hungry under quarantine at home, while officials were demanding payment in advance to bring them goods.
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.
While the number of infections in China—where the virus originated in Hubei province’s Wuhan city—appears to be slowing, Beijing has faced criticism for its slow initial response to the epidemic and its lack of transparency in handling it.
As of Wednesday, more than 926,000 people have been infected by the virus worldwide, leaving some 46,500 dead.
Reported by Gulchehre Hoja for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.