The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global public health emergency on January 30. The Chinese government initially heavily obscured the severity of outbreak in the early days, leading to inadequate initial handling and the spread of the virus to other parts of the world. The outbreak that began in Wuhan is now a matter of global concern, with more than 24,000 confirmed total cases in 27 countries and at least 494 deaths.
The response from the rest of the world has been swift, as experts suggest the coronavirus outbreak may become an pandemic. Many countries have been attempting to prevent further cases by evacuating their nationals from China, conducting screenings at airports, restricting travel and movement of goods into and out of China, educating citizens on how to stay safe, and dispatching teams to develop vaccines and assist China with containment efforts. However, one high risk area has been largely ignored – Chinese occupied East Turkestan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
The Chinese government has confirmed at least 32 cases of coronavirus in the Uyghur region, but the actual number is likely much higher due to the communication blackout that is central to China’s mass detention and surveillance campaign in East Turkestan.
Estimates from the United Nations and United States suggest China has detained more than 1 million and as many as 3 million Uyghurs and other indigenous peoples in internment camps, forced labor factories, and other detention facilities. Uyghurs in the diaspora fear the actual number may be much higher, especially considering the number of Uyghur children who have been separated from their families and detained in state orphanages and kindergartens.
Reports of overcrowding, malnutrition, physical and sexual abuse, organ harvesting and other grave human rights abuses in the camps suggest the region could become a breeding ground for the coronavirus. But China does not seem to be allocating adequate resources to screen, diagnose, and treat potential victims in East Turkestan and has instead focused nearly all resources to combat the virus in Wuhan. Left ignored, the region could face mass outbreaks and much higher mortality rates than reported anywhere else.
Understanding the Novel Coronavirus
The 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) currently plaguing China, especially central Hubei province, is part of a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Scientists are still analyzing the genetic tree of this virus to uncover the specific source of the infection.
Two other coronaviruses known to infect humans, SARS and MERS, came from civet cats and camels, respectively. The new coronavirus, like SARS and MERS, is transmitted via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, drips or exhales.
Unfortunately, there is no specific recommended antiviral treatment for the virus. Those infected need to be quarantined and treated for flu-like symptoms, such as fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. In severe cases, treatment includes care to support vital organ functions. The best way to stay safe from the virus is to take preventative measures, including washing your hands often, wearing masks, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and keeping your immune system healthy.
Children, the elderly, and patients who suffer from weak immune systems and other illnesses are at greater risk of developing complications that may lead to death if they are infected by the virus. 2019-nCoV is spreading much faster than SARS, which affected 8,000 people over eight months, although with a lower death toll. China has confirmed nearly 25,000 cases of the new coronavirus, but epidemiologists fear as many as 100,000 people may have been infected across the world.
U.S. health officials have criticized Chinese authorities for refusing help from the United States and other international investigative agencies in fighting the virus. While China has been more transparent than it was during the 2003 SARS outbreak, U.S. officials and other health organizations are still getting their information through press briefings rather than from direct transfer of reliable scientific data.
Mortality rates are hard to estimate in the early stages of an outbreak, and the new coronavirus may mutate as it spreads between humans. It’s also impossible to predict whether genetic changes will make it more or less virulent. As of Wednesday morning, 494 of the more than 20,000 cases confirmed around the world have resulted in death, which is approximately 1 in 50. By comparison, the mortality rate of the regular seasonal flu is 1 in 1,000. These numbers may mean nothing as our understanding of the situation develops; however it is clear that those without access to medical facilities have a much higher risk of death.
Danger of Mass Outbreaks and Deaths in the Uyghur Region
For Uyghurs and other persecuted groups in China’s mass detention camps, access to hospitals, quarantine areas, adequate nutrition, hygiene products, and other necessities for healthy living are severely restricted, according to human rights monitors and camp survivors.
Detainees are held in extremely overcrowded cells where it is at times impossible to stretch without touching the person next to you. Accounts from survivors suggest many in the camps are left extremely weak from malnutrition, the terribly unhygienic conditions of the camps and physical, mental, and sexual abuse. They are therefore at a much higher risk of being infected and dying from the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has already infected people in the region as flights and other transportation from Wuhan to Urumqi, the capital of East Turkestan, continued as news of the virus began to leak out. Despite the heightened risk, the Chinese government and the rest of the world have largely ignored the spread of the virus in the Uyghur region, which brings the potential for mass outbreaks and considerably higher mortality rates than Wuhan.
Considering that each camp holds thousands of people and estimates of detentions continue to increase, the millions of Uyghur and other victims of China’s mass detention campaign may also become victims of the coronavirus.
Without external pressure, China isn’t likely to take adequate measures to address the spread of the coronavirus in East Turkestan anytime soon. Even after a massive leak of Chinese government documents that detailed China’s mass detention and surveillance campaign in East Turkestan, China continues to deny its crimes against humanity in the region. Unable to get news about whether their family members in the camps are still alive, Uyghurs in the diaspora fear China may deliberately ignore outbreaks in the camps or use the coronavirus to explain away unrelated deaths.
If the world wants what may soon become a pandemic to end sooner rather than later, it cannot afford to neglect East Turkestan. We must call on the WHO and other organizations working on global health to:
- Send delegations to East Turkestan to evaluate the current spread of the coronavirus, assess the risks inside and outside the mass detention camps, and take necessary measures to prevent mass outbreaks and mortalities.
- Work with national governments and the United Nations to pressure China to immediately close its mass detention camps as part of the global response to the coronavirus outbreak.
- Send medical equipment and medical teams to screen, diagnose, and treat those inside and outside of the camps in East Turkestan.
Munawwar Abdulla holds an MSc from UNSW Sydney and a B. Med Sci from ANU. She currently works as a lab manager and technician in an evolutionary neuroscience lab at Harvard University and is also a co-founder of the Tarim Network, an activist, and a poet. She has previously been published in places such as The Diplomat, UHRP Blog, SubbedIn, and Overachiever Magazine.