“Do you want to kill me? Just kill me.” This is the cry of one Uyghur man in Xinjiang, China, where the government has instituted a strict lockdown due to coronavirus concerns. Unable to help his starving family, the man begged for death in a recent viral video experts say is authentic.

One might have thought that things couldn’t get worse for the oppressed, mostly-Muslim, Uyghur minority concentrated in the northwestern Uyghur region. Yet, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) found a way to manipulate a health crisis and add to it a humanitarian crisis for the beleaguered Uyghur minority.

Local authorities began to impose a strict quarantine in parts of the region at the end of January, and reports suggest the locals were given no notice before the lockdown. Without advance warning or time to store food or other supplies, residents are still forbidden from leaving their homes. Now, they are running out of food and medical supplies.

One Uyghur woman anonymously described her family’s situation to Radio Free Asia, saying, “[The adults] are only eating one meal a day from morning to night” since the lockdown started. “Every morning, we just worry about the children having something to eat.” Without enough to eat, her eight-year-old daughter “became dizzy and passed out,” injuring her head when she fell.

This is just the latest in a long list of China’s abuses against Uyghurs. The Chinese government operates what it calls “Vocational Education and Training Centers” across the Xinjiang province, where an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are forcibly detained, mistreated, pressured to cease their religious practices, and indoctrinated with communist propaganda. 

Recently leaked internal Chinese government documents reveal that Uyghurs can be sent to these re-education camps for just about any reason—including following religious traditions, growing a beard, having too many kids, or owning a passport without having traveled.

Now, Uyghurs fear that breaking quarantine will get them immediately detained in a camp. Even those with serious health problems unrelated to coronavirus are too afraid to violate the quarantine and leave their house to seek medical care.

While the government might insist that the sudden and strict lockdown is meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has caused at least two deaths in the region, an effective medical response does not require creating a new humanitarian crisis of mass hunger among residents. The answer to the threat of a dangerous new virus cannot be to starve people under implicit house arrest.

In responding to this crisis, time is of the essence. The Uyghur Human Rights Project has called upon the Red Cross of China, the International Red Cross, and the Red Crescent to request access to the Uyghur region so that they can conduct investigations and provide basic humanitarian relief such as food and medicine to residents who have been trapped.

It’s clear the Chinese government will use any excuse it can to further oppress this small religious group. The U.S. should continue to criticize China’s abuses against Uyghurs and other religious minorities. It’s unacceptable that any country would treat its own people this way—and the Chinese Communist Party must be made to understand that.