Shohret Hoshur | Radio Free Asia
At least 13 Uyghurs have died as the result of poisoning from disinfectants sprayed in their homes last week used to fight a wave of coronavirus infections in a county in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region, local residents and officials said.
The Uyghurs who died were all residents of Guma county (in Chinese, Pishan), Hotan (Hetian) prefecture. They are said to be among thousands of people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) who reported having been poisoned by disinfectants used to fight the COVID-19 virus, according to online comments on social media.
Many videos shared online show authorities spraying inner walls, furniture, and bedding as well as inside refrigerators in homes in the region. Residents said planes with sprayers have flown over the area frequently since the lockdown.
Acting on an anonymous tip about the deaths in Guma, RFA confirmed that at least a dozen people from a village in the county have died of COVID disinfectant poisoning.
“I am told it is about 12 or 13 [who died],” said a local official in charge of overseeing 10 households in a village in Guma county.
“It happened on Sept. 20,” he said.
The official, who declined to be named in order to discuss the incident, told RFA that a resident named Ibrahim from a family in the village died of disinfectant poisoning. He said one of his own relatives, the wife of one of his cousins, had also died.
“Her name was Atihan. She was a housewife between the ages of 45 and 50,” he said.
Five people from another Uyghur family lost their lives after heavy spraying, said the official.
“A woman named Atahaji died along with her daughter, two grandchildren, and one daughter-in-law — five of them,” he said.
“The government sprayed disinfectants on the roofs and in the yards of each house to disinfect, and as a result, all of the residents passed out, and there was no one from the government to take them to the hospital,” an Uyghur from the affected area in Guma told RFA.
The man, who requested anonymity for safety reasons, said police detained his 24-year-old son because he refused to let authorities inside their house to spray.
“This is what the community is going through,” the man said. “There is nothing to eat, and the whole community has been knocked out by [authorities’] spraying the so-called disinfectant. We all don’t know what will happen tomorrow when we wake up.”
Spraying from the air
An information service hotline operator in Hotan did not deny the deaths from the disinfectant spray but advised RFA to contact the Epidemic Command Center for details.
A staffer from the center confirmed that there had been incidents of Uyghurs sickened by disinfectant poisoning at a local hospital.
But when he asked her about the death toll from the poisonings, she angrily replied, “Don’t ask such questions.”
RFA later spoke with another staffer at the center who said she had to check with a supervisor before giving out any details, but later confirmed that the poisoning incident occurred in Guma county.
When asked about the name of the village where the incident occurred, she said she was from Hotan city and was not too familiar with Guma county.
A third staffer referred RFA to the center’s Information Services Office for the number of residents who had died from the spraying.
Another Guma resident blamed the deaths on aerial disinfectant sprays by plane over the previous nine days in Hotan.
A second Hotan resident also said airplanes had been flying over the area since the lockdown began.
Memet Imin, a New York-based Uyghur medical researcher, said there are various types of disinfectants in use right now, though it is unclear what kind of disinfectant authorities used in Guma.
“There are studies that excessive and long-term use of disinfectants against COVID-19 can be harmful to health,” he said. “A lot of scientific research has been done on this.”
“Therefore, when the concentration of some disinfectants exceeds a certain limit, it may cause some injuries in the skin, eyes, respiratory tract, nerves system and digestive tract, and in some cases, it may cause serious illness,” he said.
Parts of Xinjiang have been under a strict lockdown since early August under China’s “zero COVID” policy, forcing Uyghurs in affected areas to rely on local officials for scarce food handouts. Others have not been able to obtain the necessary medications. RFA has previously reported deaths from starvation or lack of access to medicine in Ghulja.
The severe lockdown is making life worse for the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang who have been subject to a crackdown by Chinese authorities since 2017 that has included mass detentions in internment camps and prisons and serious human rights violations.
A report issued in late August by the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the repression in the XUAR “may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.”