Chinese officials announced the first confirmed coronavirus cases among the oppressed Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang province last week.
Cities in the area are already under quarantine, and residents are complaining about food shortages, including a man who became a viral video sensation by running into the street and yelling that his family was starving.
The confirmed coronavirus infection is a 75-year-old retired teacher named Pehridin Helil living in the town of Dongmazar. The rest of his family is under observation, as well as some of the people he came into contact with at a funeral gathering recently.
Residents of the area complained to Radio Free Asia that Chinese Communist Party officials have been infuriatingly opaque about the virus threat in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAUR), with few official announcements but local “party cadres” making offhand comments that imply they are concerned about an outbreak spreading from Dongmazar.
“The cadres don’t speak transparently about this. They hide this kind of information or they reveal it on some occasions. Sometimes they will say they found one, or four, in our village as well,” said a resident of a nearby town who said he was locked in his house for several days by officials because his business sometimes takes him to Dongmazar.
Another area resident said the cadres are acting as if Pehridin Helil’s entire family has been infected and everyone who came in contact with them could be a coronavirus risk. Communist Party officials did not return RFA’s calls when the news agency tried to confirm these stories.
Not all residents of XUAR are Uyghurs. Outside the Uyghur community, 76 coronavirus cases have been reported from Xinjiang, one of them fatal.
RFA reported Monday on the hardships imposed by the quarantines in Xinjiang, hardships that seem to fall especially hard on the Uyghurs even though the number of confirmed infections in their community is low:
RFA’s Uyghur Service spoke with a Uyghur woman in Ghulja, in the XUAR’s Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, who confirmed that her family of four children and three adults living in the city’s Qaradong township has been unable to obtain enough food because of the quarantine on Monday, as the region saw its number of COVID-19 infections hold steady at 76, including two deaths.
“[The adults] are only eating one meal a day from morning to night,” she said, adding that they had done so for the “nearly 10 days” since the quarantine went into effect.
“Every morning, we just worry about the children having something to eat. My husband says we don’t need to eat, only the kids do. We’re having naan—just plain naan. We’re cooking things for the kids to eat, but we’re just eating naan.”
The woman, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal from local authorities, said that her household lacks sufficient stores of flour, vegetables, and oil, and that she and others hadn’t eaten meat since the quarantine began.
She said that her eight-year-old daughter “became dizzy and passed out” as a result of not having enough to eat, adding that the girl “injured her head when she fell.”
“Truthfully, there are a lot of people struggling in our neighborhood,” she said.
According to RFA’s source, the authorities have provided minimal assistance to Uyghurs quarantined in their homes and often demand payment in advance for any goods they deliver. The locals have grown wary of being exploited by profiteering officials and fear being labeled “hoarders” if they keep asking for supplies.
A Communist Party official scoffed at these complaints and told RFA the unhappy Uyghurs were all either hysterics or troublemakers.
“Some of them are people worrying too much – if the food doesn’t arrive on time, then they exaggerate the situation. Some of them are ill-intentioned people. They don’t like peace and are ready to cause trouble at any time. Some opportunistically create problems. We’re taking measures against them,” the official said.
A viral video of a man running into the street and pleading for food to sustain his starving family came from Ghulja, the same county where the first confirmed Uyghur coronavirus case was reported.
Uyghur man is raging and complaining that his whole family was left with nothing to eat. The recorder of the video (possibly a police or an official) is asking him repeatedly not to shout, and the man is asking back: "do you want me to kill myself? I'm hungry, I'm hungry …" pic.twitter.com/PSnrX6fKLF
— Uyghur Bulletin (@UyghurBulletin) February 21, 2020
Some Uyghurs have reported seeing shipments of food delivered to their Han Chinese neighbors in Xinjiang and concluded the Chinese government is discriminating against them, or perhaps even using the coronavirus epidemic as an excuse to deliberately starve them.