Fears about conditions within indoctrination camps are even greater, and information even more scarce. There have been no reports of conditions at the facilities since the outbreak began. But former detainees previously described poor diet and sanitation and little help for those who fell ill.
Chinese internal documents leaked to the New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have included warnings by officials about the dangers of infectious diseases in the indoctrination program.
Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Chinese Kazakh woman who was forced to work as a Chinese language teacher in a camp for a few months to early 2018, said she was concerned that the government was doing little to prevent an outbreak in the fields.
"In my personal experience in the concentration camp, they never helped anyone or provided medical assistance for any type of illness or health condition," said Ms. Sauytbay, who fled to Kazakhstan two years ago, in a telephone interview this month. . "If the coronavirus were to spread within the fields, they would not help, they would not provide any kind of medical assistance."
Now the region is being rocked back to work. Labor transfer programs, in which large numbers of Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities are sent to work in other parts of Xinjiang and the rest of China, have resumed in recent weeks. The programs have come under scrutiny for harsh controls and coercive recruitment methods that experts say amount to forced labor.
By March 20, more than 20,000 people from poor counties, predominantly Uighurs in southern Xinjiang, were sent to work in cities like Hotan, Kashgar and Urumqi, the regional capital. The goal, according to the state newspaper Xinjiang Daily, was to transfer 50,000 people by the end of March.
In order to reduce the risk of exposure to the coronavirus, according to the newspaper, workers had to be guided closely from one point to another. When a group of workers left, the newspaper said, they were only allowed "to get out, get on the train, and then enter through the factory gate."