With the new coronavirus (COVID-19) having spread in several dozen countries and claimed thousands of lives, the pressure is increasing not far from the epicenter of the disaster, in Xinjiang province of China. Since the disease emerged at the end of last year in Wuhan, it has since reached every Chinese province, including Xinjiang, the place where up to a million Uighur Muslims are being kept in what is essential, concentration camps. With fears of a global pandemic looming, the disease is highly infectious and extremely fatal in high-risk groups. This makes camps the ideal ground for the virus to multiply and kill, due to the overcrowding, lack of sanitation facilities, inhumane living conditions, and non – existent medical attention.
According to Al-Jazeera’s Omar Suleiman, ethnic Uighurs that have experienced the full range of China’s policies, see the spread of the virus as some sort of divine intervention, meant to punish China for her crimes and the world for its indifference. With them having been abandoned by the international community, as well as the Muslim world, it seems like an expected and unsurprising conclusion. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is promoting the age-old discourse when it comes to the camps, that of internal security, deradicalization, and necessity, while simultaneously dealing with the widespread chaos caused by the virus. Wang Xining, a Chinese diplomat to Australia, has defended the country’s official position to both crises in ABC’s Q&A program. The media blackout in the region makes it nearly impossible to understand the scope of the threat or gain any credible insights.
The Chinese response to the outbreak has gone through the usual stages, beginning with an attempted coverup, by punishing the doctor who discovered it, to large scale preventative and aggressive measures. The magnitude of this response, only China can achieve. With much of the country in effective lockdown to minimize the spread and the construction of a new specialized hospital in just 5 days, one could say that the Chinese government is taking all the appropriate measures to prevent an even bigger catastrophe. The situation in Xinjiang, however, remains bleak. With no way of the news to travel and a big part of the population being sitting ducks, the probability of the situation deteriorating is high. At the same time, judging by the systematic erasure of Uighur culture and tradition, it can be argued that a Coronavirus outbreak in the camps would be manna from heaven for the Chinese government. The extermination of a large number of the population, with no responsibility and no cause other than bad luck, would bring China one step closer to realizing her long term goals for the region.
Since 2017, China has introduced tough restrictions on ethnic Uighurs in the Xinjiang region, as well as so-called re-education camps, dedicated to deradicalization. In practice, the camps have acted as prisons, where the people are being stripped of their own culture, heritage, language, and bodily autonomy and indoctrinated based on the CCP’s guidelines. There are multiple estimates as to how many people are in such camps, with numbers ranging from 1-3 million. The novel coronavirus was identified in Wuhan city in December 2019 and has spread to more than 30 countries and has infected more than 80 thousand people at the time of writing.
With panic surrounding the virus rising, and the Chinese health system becoming increasingly overwhelmed, it appears that the Uighur minority is under threat more than ever before. In light of the outbreak, the international community should finally mobilize and protect those that are most vulnerable. There are no high hopes for this happening, with little mention of the Uighur plight in mainstream media, even before COVID-19 occupied the majority of the headlines. Nevertheless, the situation will continue to develop and hopefully be resolved as peacefully as possible.