Pehirdin Helil, a 78-year-old Uyghur retiree in Ghulja (in Chinese, Yining) county, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Ili Kazakh (Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture, was quarantined for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) on Feb. 5 after he went to the hospital presenting with symptoms from longstanding gastrointestinal issues. He recently told RFA’s Uyghur Service he is in good health and that he believes he was mistakenly quarantined by authorities in the panic surrounding the spread of the virus in the XUAR, which as of Friday has seen 76 people become infected, with three deaths.
RFA: So how was [your alleged illness] discovered? How did you end up in your current situation?
Helil: I’ve had stomach problems for 40 years. One morning I got up and realized that the food [I’d eaten the night before] hadn’t digested. I wasn’t able to go to the doctor because the roads were closed off [for quarantine]. I drank some vinegar to try to deal with the problem on my own, as I’ve often done. Because of that, I had to lie down and my stomach issues got even worse by the afternoon. I went to the hospital in Maza [township]. Then I went to the county hospital to get medicine. They gave me orders to stay in the gastrointestinal ward. After I’d been there for two days, I got a bit of a high fever, and they got suspicious and put me into quarantine [on Feb. 5] … It’s been 15 days.
RFA: So now, are they still keeping you under the suspicion that you’ve contracted the coronavirus?
Helil: Yes, that’s what they’re doing.
RFA: Really? How did they explain that they were quarantining you? Keeping you separately from others?
Helil: They didn’t really say anything. Instead, at the county hospital they told me they were going to take me to the city hospital. I said, “sure,” and so they took me in. I don’t know the reasons—they do.
RFA: Does the doctor come see you in person or do they check in via a screen?
Helil: No, they’re on one side of a window and I’m on the other. We talk via phone.
RFA: Are you in touch with your wife and children? Do they have fevers or other symptoms of the flu?
Helil: One of my sons has stomach problems and also recently fell from a height of two stories while working. They say he has internal bruising, so they took him in, and it looks like they’re treating him separately, in quarantine.
RFA: You have a grandchild named Gulnigar, correct? We heard that they’re keeping separate watch on her as well. Do you know about this?
Helil: I haven’t asked about any of the specifics yet. I heard that they were quarantining Gulnigar, but I don’t know if that’s because of me or for some other reason.
RFA: Where is your wife, Reyhangul, right now?
Helil: She’s back in the county now. She and our children are in one place together. They’re staying together at an old house of ours at the Normal University. She took them all there. My children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, even my in-laws—they’re all there.
RFA: How many of them are living there, at the Normal University?
Helil: I have six children, my younger brother has four, so that’s . My in-laws have seven or eight. All are at the school … They’re all in the same building, but separate homes.
RFA: When did you first hear about the coronavirus?
Helil: I heard about it in January, when someone spoke about it. It’s been a long time now. It was on TV and radio nonstop.
RFA: Was your neighborhood closed off? Were the streets closed?
Helil: Some of my relatives said that they couldn’t go outside, that there were locks on the gates. In our neighborhood, now they’ve apparently put locks on all the gates … My youngest son said that. When we talked, he said, “We can’t go outside, there are locks. ‘So-and-so’ got sick and had no way to get treatment. Three people have died.” It looks like this is happening at a lot of places.
RFA: Do you know who are in the rooms around you?
Helil: They took five of us out for CT scans today. Three of them are Han women. They’re young. One is an older Han with a white beard. I’m the only Uyghur.
‘I am not infected’
RFA: Do you know what they suspected that made them take you in?
Helil: They didn’t say anything openly to me. Personally, I don’t think [my condition] has anything to do with the … virus.
RFA: So in that case, you think this is a mistaken diagnosis, perhaps on account of the urgency of the virus situation?
Helil: Given the situation, I do think that’s the case.
RFA: How are you feeling currently?
Helil: I’m really doing well. Let me say, I feel certain that I am not infected. I’m not one of those people who’s gone outside.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.