Chinese officials in Xinjiang province, home of the oppressed Uyghur Muslims, said on Thursday that at least 99 residents of Wuhan are under quarantine in the city of Atush.
Wuhan is the center of the coronavirus outbreak, while Xinjiang features dozens of overcrowded, unsanitary concentration camps that could allow the virus to spread rapidly among the Uyghurs.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), the 99 people under quarantine might just be the tip of the iceberg, because up to 13,000 people from the heavily-populated Wuhan area might have reached the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) before quarantine was imposed.
Even the story about the 99 people isolated at a hotel in Atush was not easy to get, because Chinese officials are treating information about the virus as a classified “state secret”:
RFA was able to speak with several officials in Atush, in the XUAR’s Kizilsu Kirghiz (Kezileisu Keerkezi) Autonomous Prefecture, who said on condition of anonymity that at least 99 residents of Wuhan had been quarantined at the city’s Yashin Hotel, with additional people from the virus’s epicenter possibly held under similar conditions in another guesthouse.
“Our cadres said [the Wuhan residents] are being quarantined in hotels such as the Yashin and the Mirivan, where they have rooms for people to stay,” an official with the municipal government said on Tuesday, without providing details of when the quarantine had gone into effect.
“The Yashin is located in the center of the city and is more than 10 stories tall.”
RFA spoke with a security guard at the Yashin Hotel who confirmed the quarantine, but said he was unsure of how many people were being held there.
“We have no empty rooms here—it’s full and we cannot be opened, because we’re not operating,” he said.
“It’s filled with quarantined people. I don’t know the numbers, but I can try to ask the doctors.”
An official at the Yashin called the hotel a “quarantine site,” adding that “all of them are from Hubei’s Wuhan city.”
Several other hotel employees told RFA the entire building has been closed on government orders, although some denied that any quarantine patients were currently housed there. The rest of the city of Atush has been blocked off with portable fencing and residents have been told to stay indoors for three weeks. The lockdown was imposed so suddenly that people said they had no opportunity to stock up on food and supplies:
“They told us not to leave our houses, so we’re not, and they’ve blocked off the roads,” one Atush resident said, adding that the emergency measures had been in effect for “three or four days” already.
“We’re not going out. No one is going out. We’re all staying at home for now.”
The resident described the fencing as being deployed to “stop people from passing through … people from other places.”
“They’re gates that block streets off from one another … They’ve blocked off entrances, exits, and the roads themselves,” the resident added.
The resident said no one was informed of the plan by authorities ahead of time, and when it went into effect, it was explained as a measure to “stop a virus coming in from elsewhere.”
“If we can’t go out, we’re going to run out of food—no one’s selling anything out on the streets,” they said.
“We need to be able to go to the bazaar, but we need [official] papers for that, and what can we do since they won’t give us those papers?”
Foreign Policy noted on Wednesday that China’s quarantines and lockdowns have been quite dramatic – Wuhan itself is a once-teeming metropolis that looks like a ghost town – but they do not appear to be slowing the spread of the coronavirus as much as hoped, perhaps because so much movement occurred in the early days of the outbreak, when the Chinese government was trying to pretend it was not happening.
The lockdowns are helping the Chinese Communist Party control the spread of information. Foreign Policy mused darkly that Beijing’s new policy of clustering infected people into tight quarantine zones, like the hotel in Atush, is helpful for “understating” the number of people who have died from the disease.