Police across swathes of Africa have failed to find more than a fraction of hundreds of people who have escaped from often unsanitary and uncomfortable COVID-19 quarantine centres in recent weeks, reports The Guardian. In Malawi, more than 400 people repatriated from South Africa and elsewhere fled a makeshift centre set up at a stadium in Blantyre, the commercial capital, last week. Police and health workers told reporters they were unable to stop the escapees as they lacked adequate protective gear.
At least 46 escapees had tested positive for the virus, officials said. Some of those who fled told reporters they had bribed police. In separate incidents 26 people left the Mwanza border post while waiting for test results and eight others, all tested and shown to be infected, broke out of an isolation centre in Blantyre.
In Zimbabwe, Paul Nyathi, a police spokesman, is quoted in the report as saying that a total of 148 people had escaped from centres where a 21-day quarantine is mandatory for those returning from abroad. There has also been at least one mass breakout in Kenya, while individuals have also escaped from quarantine in Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and Namibia.
South Africa has been able to provide relatively comfortable quarantine facilities when necessary, hosting one group of nationals returning from China in a tourist lodge in the province of Limpopo. But elsewhere centres are often unsanitary, uncomfortable and in some cases dangerous, human rights campaigners say.
In Kenya, investigations by Human Rights Watch revealed poor conditions, including lack of bedding, water, food, and cleaning supplies. People held in quarantine facilities told HRW they were not told of test results and that staff did not wear protective equipment. Many others described similar conditions in other facilities and said the authorities sometimes extended quarantine periods from the initial mandatory 14 days to more than 30 days, even when people tested negative several times.
The report says all were asked to pay for accommodation, food and other costs before being allowed to leave. Many of those who could not pay were held for additional days and in one instance police were called in to beat those who persisted in pleading their inability to pay, victims and witnesses said.
The more than 400 people who fled a quarantine centre at a stadium in Blantyre were recently repatriated from South Africa and Botswana, says a RFI report. Health workers and police watched them leave, telling reporters they did not have the proper protective materials to nab those escaping.
Other reports indicate that they fled because there were not enough bathrooms or other facilities at the stadium they were placed in. They said they had not received food from authorities since Monday.
Most of the 75 cases registered in Zimbabwe this week were from quarantine centres that hold people who have returned, sometimes forcibly from South Africa and Botswana. Police continue to search for more than 100 who escaped the quarantine centre. People coming into the country are subject to a 21-day quarantine.
“They escape and sneak into the villages … We are warning people to stop sheltering them. These escapees are becoming a serious danger to communities,” said police spokesperson Nyathi.
The report says the issue of returnees was cited at a special parliamentary committee, when Health Minister Obadiah Moyo said that the centres have become “our source of danger.”
And while those who escaped are a worry, the government has expressed concern that those who cross the South Africa-Zimbabwe border clandestinely will not be reporting at quarantine centres. The information ministry has created a hotline phone number and calling on people to stop harbouring “border jumpers” and escapees.
While both Zimbabwe and Malawi currently have fewer than 200 confirmed cases, South Africa, where many move to work, has more than 25,000 cases, the report says.
Commenting on the escape of the repatriated Malawians, district health officer Gift Kawaladzira is quoted in an AFP report as saying: “They have all gone home on their own. By then, 16 were positive already. Others were waiting for lab results. If most of them have COVID-19, then we are facing very difficult times ahead.”
Kawaladzira said his team had mobilised other district offices to track down the escapees. “The danger is that they will be hiding from authorities… and hence cannot follow the set procedures for COVID-19 prevention,” he warned.
Doreen Lemani, who worked as a domestic cleaner in South Africa, said she returned home to Malawi fleeing tough economic conditions under the lockdown, only to be met by chaos in Blantyre. “They did not provide us with food, and the toilets and showers here are in a horrible state. How did they expect us to stay here?” asked the woman, who was among those who left the stadium. We had wilfully offered ourselves to be tested, but this is chaos… Now they are telling us that they can’t find our test results,” the woman told a local TV station.
Full report in The Guardian
Full RFI report
Full AFP report on The South African site