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“This could be a massive disaster”: What happens if the coronavirus hits China’s internment camps?

The Wuhan virus could escalate the suffering of Muslims in the camps, where conditions have created a perfect breeding ground for infectious disease.

A woman in a shopping district in Hong Kong wears a breathing mask as a preventative measure following a coronavirus outbreak.
Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Perhaps the only thing worse than being stuck in an internment camp is being stuck in an internment camp when there’s a deadly virus on the move.

As the Wuhan coronavirus spreads across China, infections have been confirmed in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million Muslims are held in camps for forced indoctrination.

For now, there’s no evidence that the virus has hit any of the camps. But experts warn that if it does, it could drastically compound the suffering there, potentially leading to thousands of deaths.

Former inmates — most of whom are Uighurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority — have reported that the camps are overcrowded and unsanitary. If the virus gains a toehold there, it could spread from person to person all too easily.

“Cramped conditions, poor hygiene, cold, stressed immune systems — this could be a massive disaster,” wrote James Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University who monitors the Xinjiang camps closely, on Twitter.

The repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang is already one of the most harrowing — and yet one of the most neglected — humanitarian crises in the world today. And as Adrian Zenz, one of the leading researchers on China’s mass internment system, noted, “The coronavirus could add an entirely new dimension to the Xinjiang crisis.”

Uighurs in the diaspora are worried that if it does, it will escalate the suffering of inmates. They’re tweeting their fears under the hashtag #VirusThreatInCamps.

“China should do everything in its power to prevent the spread of the Wuhan virus into any camps because the consequences will be catastrophic, resulting possibly in the deaths of tens of thousands of Uighurs arbitrarily detained in the past three years,” said Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress.

Some worry that if outbreaks were to hit the camps, China might cover up the problem rather than working quickly and transparently to save lives. The government may have initially censored or at least downplayed information about the coronavirus, as it did during the SARS outbreak of 2003. What’s more, the Communist Party sees the Uighur people as a separatist and terrorist threat, and it has attempted to keep the true goings-on in the camps a secret.

“If the virus reaches the camps in Xinjiang, I can’t imagine the authorities are going to make this public knowledge,” said Tim Grose, a China expert at the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. “I just don’t see that happening, especially since they’ve been hellbent on making the camps seem as humane as possible. One thing that could potentially derail that PR move is if people are getting sick with a very serious disease that they don’t know exactly how to treat.”

China foresaw the risk of an epidemic in the internment camps

China is no stranger to infectious outbreaks. In 2003, it was at the center of the SARS outbreak, and the international community slammed it for censoring information, underreporting cases, and failing to stop the spread of the epidemic.

In 2017, when Chinese officials began to set up internment camps in Xinjiang, they drafted a manual about how to construct and run them. The very first guideline contains a warning to “never allow escapes, never allow trouble, never allow attacks on staff, never allow abnormal deaths, never allow food safety incidents and major epidemics.”

A dedicated section on how to prevent epidemics follows. It reads in part:

Focus on the prevention of influenza, typhoid, hemorrhoids, tuberculosis and other epidemic diseases, improve the health inspection system, improve the settings of the medical office, ensure medical staff and drug equipment, and establish a major disease referral treatment mechanism. Grasp the personal hygiene of the students, and put drug-using students and students with infectious diseases such as AIDS into isolated living quarters, trainings and classes. Improve the regular epidemic prevention and disinfection system.

This all makes it sound like maintaining health is a priority in the camps. But contrast it with the testimonies of former inmates like Sayragul Sauytbay, a Kazakh woman who told Haaretz what she witnessed:

There were almost 20 people in a room of 16 square meters. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. ... The food was bad, there weren’t enough hours for sleep, and the hygiene was atrocious. The result of it all was that the inmates turned into bodies without a soul.

Squalid conditions like these create a perfect breeding ground for infectious disease.

“In China, you often see a large gap between the ways policies are written and the way they’re implemented,” Grose said in reference to the guidelines in the manual.

He noted that over the past year, some Uighurs have been moved out of the Xinjiang camps and into factories in the interior of the country, where they perform forced labor. Whereas other experts are focused on the risk of an outbreak in the camps, he suggested there might be more cause to worry about it in the factories. “They could be problematic,” he said, “because we see movement of a lot of people there.”

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