Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have quarantined a young Uyghur student in isolation, suggesting that she spread the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to the first Uyghur identified by officials as being infected in the region.
On Feb. 5, officials in Dongmazar township, in Ili Kazakh (in Chinese, Yili Hasake) Autonomous Prefecture's Ghulja (Yining) county, identified 78-year-old Uyghur pensioner Pehridin Helil as a positive COVID-19 case after he went to the hospital presenting with symptoms from longstanding gastrointestinal issues.
At the end of the month, Helil told RFA’s Uyghur Service he was 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 Monday had not seen any new infections for more than two weeks—the incubation period for the disease.
Following the reports, a source told RFA on condition of anonymity that Helil’s next-door neighbor in Sheyk village had recently returned to the area from Hubei province’s Wuhan city—the epicenter of the coronavirus—where she is in her second year of studying for a business degree at Wuhan University, and that authorities believe she infected the pensioner with COVID-19.
RFA spoke with Helil, who said that he hadn’t been in contact with the student since her return.
“I heard that she came back, but I haven’t seen her since she did,” he said.
“We’ve had some home construction issues with them. We’ve had a property dispute and some other issues, so we don’t visit them and they don’t visit us.”
RFA was also able to contact the young woman, who denied being sick or having had close contact with Helil, but said she had nonetheless been placed in an isolated quarantine—beyond regular restrictions that went into effect on Jan. 23 and prevent people from leaving their homes as part of a bid by authorities to stem the spread of the disease.
“I left [Wuhan] on Jan. 7 and made it home on Jan. 9 … and then on the 23rd they issued [home] quarantine orders and said not to go out, starting that day … but we were taken [to a quarantine facility] on the 14th,” said the student, who declined to be named.
“They said I had the flu, but they also noted that it had been more than a month since I came back home and that I hadn’t been going out. My temperature was normal and there was nothing out of the ordinary.”
‘I feel normal’
The student said authorities asked her at the time whether she had gone to visit Helil or anyone else, and she told them that she hadn’t, but they took her and her family members to the quarantine facility anyway, and “said it was because I’d come from Wuhan.”
“They took us, along with the people from [Helil’s] family, and brought all of us here,” she said, adding that she, her brother, and her mother had been placed in separate rooms, while Helil was taken to the hospital in Ghulja city.
Since then, the student said, reports had circulated online that she was responsible for infecting Helil.
“One of my classmates sent it to me, and it said that [the Helil family’s situation] was because the neighbor’s kid had come back from Wuhan,” she said. “The police … [later] deleted it.”
But she said that the damage had already been done, and that “everyone is saying [Helil] is sick because of a student who came back from Wuhan.”
“I haven’t had any fever or cough and I feel normal,” she said, adding that she has no idea how Helil is doing “because I’m being held here.”
According to the student, authorities told her that there were a total of five people in her township that had returned to the area from Wuhan, but she did not know who the other four were or whether they had been quarantined in isolation.
State media reported over the weekend that of the XUAR’s 76 infections, three people had died and the remaining 73 have been released from the hospital. It said travel and communication in and out of the regional capital Urumqi had resumed as normal, and that residents have been permitted to return to work and open their businesses.
Recent reporting by RFA found that many residents of the XUAR had been left without adequate food and supplies amid quarantines enforced by local officials to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the region.
In certain areas of the XUAR residents found to have left their homes without permission during quarantine faced the threat of detention in the region’s network of internment camps, where as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas are believed to have been held since April 2017.
Reporting by RFA and other media outlets indicate that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities that experts warned recently could lead to an epidemic.
A lack of transparency on the part of officials has been blamed for allowing the coronavirus to gain a solid foothold in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, leading authorities to shut down the city in January.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson and Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.