People decry squalid conditions inside Pakistan coronavirus quarantine camp


A quarantine camp located near the border of Iran and Pakistan was erected to prevent the spread of the coronavirus from Iran which had one of the worst outbreaks globally, but people said it was no more than a prison.

“These were the hardest days and nights of my life,” said Mohammed Bakir, who was held there for two weeks. “We were treated like animals. There were no facilities but also no humanity and everything was in disarray. They were not prepared; there was nothing for us to sleep in except some dilapidated tents.”

Thousands of people have been kept in close quarters in hot, squalid conditions in the town of Taftan in Balochistan province, with not even basic precautionary measures to prevent the spread of the virus.

According to doctors at the camp, even those who presented with symptoms were not tested or even isolated, and there was a severe shortage of doctors and nurses. There was such a lack of medical facilities, the few doctors on site took to paying for necessary medicines themselves.

“Neither the quarantining service nor the testing procedure was satisfactory at all,” said one doctor, who asked not to be named. “In the first 20 days, many people had symptoms, but there was no testing at all. We had no testing facilities for three weeks. One child was sent to [a]hospital in Quetta, and he tested positive. But there was no isolation or testing for anyone else.

The border between Pakistan and Iran is more than 600 miles and movement between the two countries is extremely common, especially among minority Shia Muslims in Pakistan who travel to Iran on religious pilgrimages. It is also a crucial trade route.

But over the past two weeks, it has become a hotbed of coronavirus, with infections going up by the dozen every day. There are 302 reported cases of coronavirus in Pakistan, the highest number of cases in south Asia.

Even though infections in Iran began to rise rapidly weeks ago, the Pakistan government only officially shut the border less than a week ago. And the border is still porous; on Tuesday night at least 100 pilgrims crossed from Iran into Balochistan, reportedly after bribing border guards.

Among those held in Taftan was Abid Hussain, who was quarantined for two weeks after returning from Iran. “It’s like I have been released from prison,” said Hussain. “They call it a quarantine but we didn’t get hand wash, face masks or any other sanitary facilities. The only check was that in the morning a doctor used to come round taking everyone’s temperature. That was it for 13 days. Everyone was desperate to leave.”

Hussain also described lax regulations on movement for those in the camp, with many going to shops in the town, walking around the vicinity and having regular social gatherings. No guidelines were issued for how those in quarantine could protect themselves from getting the disease, and there was no running water for people to wash their hands.

Hundreds of people supposedly under lockdown left the camp to shop at local markets and stores, buying food and returning to the camp without any checks.

“Around these fruit stalls it was more like a scene from a busy Friday bazaar which was run by people who should have been quarantine camp in lockdown,” said one eyewitness.

The situation was equally bad in the hospitals in Balochistan, the least developed and most impoverished province of Pakistan, which were tasked with dealing with the outbreak. A doctor at one hospital in Quetta claimed that medical staff had refused to treat or even examine a young girl with all the symptoms of coronavirus, whose father had recently returned from China for work. The girl reportedly died days later without being tested.

Pakistan’s mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak, said the doctor, was “depressing and disturbing”.

Pakistan has a notoriously poor track record for containing disease outbreaks and is one of only two countries in the world that have failed to eliminate polio. The government’s fear of a coronavirus outbreak meant it even refused to evacuate the 600 Pakistani students stranded in Wuhan province in China, where the pandemic began. (Source: The Guardian)