Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan city of Hubei province, only one confirmed case of the infection is officially reported in Lhasa, the capital city of the Tibet. The infected person is a Chinese man, who is now discharged from the hospital after treatment for 18 days, has arrived at Lhasa on January 24 via train from Wuchang station in the Hubei provincial capital. He escaped his virus-affected province on January 22, a day before the official lockdown of Wuhan on January 23 from 10 am in an attempt to quarantine the epicenter to contain the epidemic. Eventually, 12 other prefecture-level cities in Hubei province were also under lockdown. All the public transports, including buses, railways, flights, and ferry services are suspended. However, flights from Wuhan to Lhasa, Xining and Urumqi were not cancelled after the official shutdown of Wuhan. This begets a simple question. Why there is always a double standard when it comes to Tibetans and Uighurs, who constitute the most significant minority nationalities in terms of conflict potential, even at the time of serious health crisis?
Exiled Tibetan media citing Tibetan sources inside Lhasa has reported (link in Tibetan) that seven among 1900 Tibetan students who were studying in various schools and colleges in Wuhan had returned to Lhasa on or before January 17 have contracted the disease. The infection is very likely considering the number of Tibetan returnees from Wuhan.
As of January 28, nearly 150 confirmed cases have been reported in four Chinese provinces combined – Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan, where a large number of Tibetan population are located. But an alarming case is that the rate of infections is still surging, which causes grave concern for the local authorities in their efforts in containing the spread of the disease. So far, most of the infected people in Tibetan areas are Chinese (link in Tibetan) who have either returned from various Chinese cities or Wuhan residents who escaped the epicenter and travel to less affected areas, including Tibet. But the latest figure suggests the growing number of infection among Tibetans.
Among 36 confirmed cases in Karze Tibetan autonomous prefecture (Karze TAP) in Sichuan province, 31 are believed to be Tibetans from Tawu county. One Tibetan from Luqu county in Kanlho Tibetan autonomous prefecture (Kanlho TAP) in Gansu province who is currently residing in Lingsha city is reported to be infected, but not counted in the Khanlo list. The number of infection in Tibetan areas in Xining (ཟི་ལིང་།) is not reported. It is likely that the number of infection among Tibetans will continue to rise mainly because of two reasons. Firstly, people keep moving into Tibetan areas from places within high rate of infection. Secondly, there is no sign of slowing down of infection in Tibetan areas.
Beside the local government’s effort in containing the spread of the contagious disease, group of Tibetans inside Tibet are voluntarily disseminating (link in Tibetan) information in the Tibetan language about the protection measures through micro-messaging platform We Chat and China’s twitter like social media Weibo. Some compose songs to spread the awareness about the infectious disease and even produce homemade masks for public use in the time of shortages of basic medical equipment in the market. And also Tibetan monasteries are reported to be helping Wuhan by making monetary donation.
Meanwhile, the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) party committee has set up a leading small group for containing the coronavirus. Wu Yingjie (Ch) and Che Dalha (Tib), two top honchos of “TAR”, who are designated as chairmen of the group, have inspected food storage facilities in and around Lhasa to check whether sufficient amount of food items are in market and to ensure that there would be no overpricing during the epidemic. According to unverified information, food prices in Lhasa have already increased despite assurances from the highest level.
The “TAR” has also announced pre-emptive measures to limit the spread of the infection. The measures include closure of public places, including monasteries, restaurants and hotels except government-approved ones. In addition, the Lhasa authorities have arranged (link in Tibetan) 517 isolated beds and 1100 medics, including doctors, nurses and paramedics.
One could argue that these efforts will be of little help if complete travel restrictions are not in place until the virus is subdued. According to an anecdote (link in Tibetan) shared by a Tibetan, who had travelled to Lhasa from Chengdu in last week of January, no thermal screening was done before boarding the plane to check the passengers for fever. He complains that lack of proper protective measures would jeopardize the lives of many people if there were any infected passengers on the plane. Ultimately, there would be an imminent danger of spread of the infection in Lhasa and other parts of “TAR”, where health experts warned that high altitude coupled with limited medical resources would exacerbate containment and treatment of the infection.
The Chinese authorities have initially not only downplayed the severity of the disease, but also bluntly covered up the nature of its transmission between humans. In fact several people in China who warned others about the outbreak of the deadly coronavirus were arrested for “spreading rumors”. This included doctor Li Wenliang, whose death from the infection sparked widespread public grieves and anger. The virus has so far killed more than 1,000 people and infected over 40,000 since it was first detected in Wuhan city in early December. However, medical experts have estimated that the rate of infection could be way higher than the official figures.
It is not known why the Chines government has announced (shown above) during the epidemic that “TAR” and Amdo (Qinghai), the two most Tibetan populated areas on the Tibetan Plateau, had zero rate of infection. The announcement was perhaps a part of the early geographic projection of infection rate in China, but we cannot rule out the fact that the announcement had prompted many Chinese to come to “TAR” and other parts of Tibet from the affected provinces in China.
*Mr. Tenzin Tseten is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. Phentok and Tsering Kalden at the Tibet Policy Institute, contributed their expertise to this article. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.