Urumqi, the capital city of China’s Xinjiang province, abruptly went into coronavirus lockdown on Thursday after five new infections were detected, three of them asymptomatic.
The Xinjiang Health Commission claimed they were the first new coronavirus cases the entire province has experienced in 149 days, but the severity of the response – and the sudden deletion of the social media post claiming Xinjiang has been virus-free for 149 days – raised suspicions that the situation is once again more serious than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to admit.
According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), Urumqi shut down its only subway line on Thursday night without warning, restricted air travel, and hinted that some residential compounds could be locked down, triggering a wave of panic buying in supermarkets.
Chinese state media said on Friday that 89 percent of both inbound and outbound flights have been canceled at Urumqi Airport, and the carriers for the remaining flights have indicated strict coronavirus screening will be required for all passengers, with a 14-day quarantine possible on arrival.
The city of 3.5 million has supposedly only discovered one confirmed case of local transmission with detectable symptoms, a 24-year-old retail store employee who tested positive after complaining of a sore throat, fever, and headache. Three people who came in close contact with her tested positive but displayed no symptoms.
A few days earlier, a businessman who recently arrived in Urumqi from the eastern province of Zhejiang tested positive as an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier.
“There is only one case, and the subway is shut?” a post on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, asked in disbelief after the Urumqi lockdown was announced.
The SCMP noted that in Kazakhstan, which borders on Xinjiang province, a new quarantine order just went into effect amid suspicions that the coronavirus is spreading along with a wave of viral pneumonia that could be worse, though the government of Kazakhstan claimed Chinese officials had mistranslated the statement that gave rise to those suspicions.
China’s state-run Global Times quoted epidemiologist Tao Lina advising Xinjiang residents not to panic despite the abrupt imposition of alarming lockdown measures, describing them as an excess of caution because with an “unknown source and transmission route” for the freshly detected infections, and the possibility that asymptomatic people can spread the disease, “tightened control and extended screening” are in order.
Tao also suggested the Urumqi outbreak could be another new mutation of the virus, much as Chinese officials claimed the sudden outbreak in Beijing a few weeks ago was caused by a new strain of Chinese coronavirus imported from Europe.
“But because Xinjiang has a much smaller population density than Beijing, it should be relatively easy to control,” Tao added.
Xinjiang province is home to the Uyghurs, a majority-Muslim ethnic group that has been brutally oppressed by the Chinese government, with millions herded into concentration camps for political “re-education.” In April, reports surfaced of Chinese officials forcing Uyghurs to live in heavily infected quarantine shelters and treat coronavirus patients, sparing Han Chinese medical workers the risk of close contact with patients. Uyghur activists said food and medicine were withheld from Xinjiang province during the worst days of the pandemic. Some Uyghurs said they were afraid to seek medical treatment for any ailment during the previous province-wide lockdown because they could be accused of catching the coronavirus by violating containment procedures and sent to the concentration camps as punishment.