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Fears escalate that coronavirus could spread inside China’s Muslim ‘re-education’ camps

Fears have arisen that a COVID-19 outbreak erupting China’s Xinjiang could infect millions of Uighur allegedly detained inside the region’s ‘re-education camps’ as the country is hit by a new spike of coronavirus cases. 

China Tuesday recorded 68 confirmed cases with the bulk of infections being found in Xinjiang where as many as three million people are believed to have been detained in vast internment camps.

The north-western Chinese region has been battling a fresh coronavirus crisis that has infected over 200 people, including a range of ethnic minorities, according to the country’s Vice Premier Sun Chunlan.

It comes as a infection cluster first emerged in a major port city in north-eastern China last week has spread to nine cities, including the Chinese capital Beijing, prompting officials to impose fresh restrictions to prevent a second wave of infections. 

China had largely brought the virus under control since it first emerged in the country late last year, through a series of strict lockdowns and travel restrictions. 

But in recent months a number of small outbreaks have given cause for concern, with China reporting 68 new infections on Tuesday – the highest daily number since April.

Of those, 57 were in the north-western region of Xinjiang, where an outbreak has seen millions of residents tested and strict lockdowns in the regional capital Urumqi. 

The escalating COVID-19 outbreak in Xinjiang has fuelled fears for the millions of Uighur people who are believed to be detained in what Chinese government called ‘re-education’ facilities. 

Dr Anna Hayes, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at James Cook University in Australia, told The Guardian that she feared China’s lack of transparency meant an outbreak might never even come to light. 

‘I doubt we would ever know. But the fact there is community transmission, it’s only a matter of time, if it hasn’t happened already,’ she said.  

‘The poor treatment and torture they endure make detainees very vulnerable and susceptible to the virus,’ said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group based in Germany, to The Telegraph.

‘Many Uighurs have already died from medical neglect in the camps,’ said Mr Isa, demanding China to shutter the facilities. ‘It will be a humanitarian disaster if the virus spreads in the camps…if it has not happened already.’  

Xinjiang’s capital city, Urumqi of 3.5million, reported on July 16 its first COVID-19 infection – a 24-year-old female retail worker – in five months.  

Experts still have not confirmed the origin of the recent Xinjiang cluster, which has infected 235 people to date.  

Many of the infected patients were said to be ethnic minorities, according to Sun Chunlan, China’s Vice Premier, without specifying the residents’ ethnicities. 

Six more cases were also reported in the industrial port city of Dalian, Liaoning province, where a new outbreak first emerged at a seafood processing plant last week. This brings the total number of new infections in Dalian to 44.

A fresh Beijing case reported Tuesday was also linked to an asymptomatic patient who had travelled from Dalian – the first new local case since a cluster in the capital was brought under control in early July.  

The Chinese capital has recently declared a victory in containing a local COVID-19 outbreak linked to a seafood market. 

A coronavirus cluster emerged at Beijing’s massive Xinfadi wholesale market in early June and infected a total of 335 people have been infected.

The local government marked the city as ‘low-risk’ on July 20 after reporting zero new cases for 14 consecutive days.

Beijing has sealed off the neighbourhood where the patient lives and begun mass testing local residents, according to the officials today.

Health authorities said the Dalian cluster had now spread to nine cities in five regions across the country, including as far away as the southeast coastal province of Fujian.

Fujian said the provincial capital Fuzhou would enter ‘wartime mode’ after it discovered an asymptomatic patient who had travelled from Dalian, 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) away.

The new measures mean increased scrutiny of travellers who enter the city from nationwide virus hotspots. 

Twelve new asymptomatic cases were also recorded in Dalian on Tuesday. China counts asymptomatic cases separately.

The Chinese Super League is currently being played in the city, under strict conditions.

Local health officials in Dalian said Sunday that they would mass-test all six million residents within four days, and announced on Monday that samples had already been taken from 1.68million people.

Dalian authorities have also banned group celebratory dining activities and ordered customers to display a local ‘health code’ on their phones when entering restaurants.

Meanwhile, health authorities in Shenzhen announced that more than 3,000 locals had been tested as of Tuesday morning, after a Hong Kong truck driver who recently tested positive passed through the city close to the semi-autonomous financial hub.

Hong Kong initially had remarkable success in controlling the outbreak, but local infections have soared over the last month.

Across the mainland, 391 people are still hospitalised with COVID-19, and there have been 83,959 infections in total.

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