The spread of the new coronavirus has captured the attention of the world, making it essential that we not abandon the millions of imprisoned Chinese Uighurs who have limited access to hospitals, nutrition and quarantine areas.
As of Thursday, nearly 1,500 people have died from the coronavirus, and all but three of those deaths have been in mainland China.
One new study says as many as 75,815 people in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, may have been infected by Jan. 25 — eight times the number of reported cases at the time. Additional research found that the number of infected people doubled in size roughly every week in the outbreak's initial few weeks.
With no vaccine yet available to prevent its spread, the world is right to be concerned.
In response, Google has shut down its offices in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, while Microsoft and Amazon have taken additional steps to prevent the spread of the virus among their workers. Schools in Beijing are closed indefinitely, while Hong Kong has shut schools until March. These are all critical measures to protect human beings from what may be a deadly pandemic.
As the world braces for the worst, however, China has refused to close their “reeducation" camps in the Xinjiang province, which Uighurs, a persecuted Muslim minority in China, and human rights observers are more appropriately calling concentration camps.
Chinese secrecy leaves us in the dark
These camps, where as many as 3 million people are detained, are at risk of becoming death chambers. The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public health emergency this month, yet China's government, the WHO and the United Nations are apparently so far silent about the potential danger to the detained Uighurs.
Gradually, the persecution has gotten worse: I've fought China's slow-motion genocide of Uighur Muslims. Now, my family are victims.
More troubling is that if the virus spreads in the camps, no one in the outside world will likely know how Chinese health officials will respond, or even the extent of the death toll, as no human rights organization or news media have been provided free access to these camps. More than a dozen coronavirus cases have already been reported in Xinjiang, but China has not disclosed whether any of the people in the camps have been infected.
China’s authorities have put secrecy ahead of openly confronting the growing crisis and risking political embarrassment. But the consequences of China’s authoritarian behavior can no longer be ignored by the rest of the world.
Last year, I spoke with Mihrigul Tursun, a survivor of the Chinese government's growing crackdown on Uighurs in the United States. Based on our conversation, as well as her own testimony during a Senate hearing that I attended, the appalling conditions of these facilities and the compromised health of those detained will make them sitting ducks for the virus.
Tursun told me she was moved among three camps during her 2017 detention, but her cell in every camp was dangerously overcrowded. She estimates one such cell was 430 square feet and held about 60 women. It was such a tight space, according to Tursun, that the women were forced to take alternating sleeping and standing shifts.
These cramped conditions could be perfectly suited for the coronavirus to spread from one individual to another very quickly.
Unsanitary, overcrowded, dangerous
Hygienic conditions are far worse than Chinese-guided media tours of these facilities have shown. Tursun says her cell contained a single uncovered, unwalled, hole in the corner as a toilet for all 60 women to use.
Such unsanitary, abusive and overcrowded conditions could make the camps a breeding ground for the coronavirus.
Even the U.S. government response disappoints: I won't evacuate without my wife and son from Wuhan
The reported human rights abuses are appalling. Former female detainees who are now in Kazakhstan, across the border from China, say many women have been forced to undergo abortions, take unidentified medication or had “contraceptive devices implanted against their will while in detention," according to The Washington Post. An anonymous former detainee told the newspaper that female guards even ordered them to smear a ground chile pepper mixture on their genitals.
These conditions killed nine of the women in the cell where Tursun was detained, according to her — and that was before this global health emergency.
Individuals with weakened immune systems, including the elderly, infants, malnourished individuals and people with high stress levels, such as those detained in these camps, are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
It is therefore critical for the world to pressure China to immediately close these camps and restore their inmates to their homes. We cannot and must not wait for reports to emerge of countless dead prisoners to act.