Hundreds of Pakistanis who returned home from a pilgrimage to Iran, were stuck in filthy coronavirus quarantine camps with limited medical care, and feared squalid conditions were helping spread the disease.
Speaking to AFP, former and current residents of Taftan camp on the border with Iran said the facility lacked running water or flushable toilets, with pilgrims only able to wash every few days.
On Wednesday, the Balochistan government sent 1,652 people, who had returned from Iran, to their respective provinces after their stay in quarantine for 14 days at Taftan. Of them, 1,230 belonged to Punjab, 232 to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 190 to Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
A day prior, around 700 pilgrims belonging to Sindh had returned home on 18 buses.
A Dawn report published yesterday had revealed around 2,000 more pilgrims and traders remain in quarantine in Taftan and near Quetta, awaiting the end of their 14-day quarantine period before being allowed to continue their onward journey. Of these, 550 are being kept in Mian Ghundi, a picturesque village about 20 kilometres southwest of Quetta.
Government figures show that a bulk of the country's confirmed cases of novel coronavirus were detected in people who went on pilgrimages to Iran — one of the countries hardest-hit by the disease.
Pakistan shares a 960 kilometre border with Iran, with the main crossing point at Taftan in Balochistan province.
“I have been using the same mask for over seven days now,” one quarantined pilgrim at Taftan, who asked not to be named, had said in a phone interview on Tuesday.
“If I didn't have the virus when I first got here, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that I have it now.”
Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since authorities announced the first two deaths last month.
The Taftan border has been closed since March 16, but thousands of Pakistan pilgrims who were visiting religious sites in Iran have been allowed to return subject to two weeks' quarantine.
They are then also expected to undergo a further two weeks quarantine in their home towns.
Taftan was built years ago specifically as a resting station for returning pilgrims, but has been overwhelmed by the crush caused by the virus.
Videos circulating on social media showed people sleeping on floors and in corridors of permanent structures, and packed into tents erected in a dirty courtyard.
No attempt has been made to separate sick pilgrims from the healthy.
'Worse than animals'
Witnesses said people confined there staged protests this week to demand better conditions, while others just fled.
Security forces had to fire warning shots to bring things under control.
Ishtiaq Hussain, a university student from Tehran, was one of those who walked out of Taftan. He was never tested for coronavirus.
He said people were treated “worse than animals”, often being given “spoilt food” and left in “freezing camps with very few blankets”.
Taftan Assistant Commissioner Najeed Qambrani said the camp's remote location made it difficult to provide amenities.
“We are providing all the possible facilities,” he said.
But Naimat Ali Khaki, who had stayed at the quarantine, said conditions were unacceptable.
“There was no cleanliness and it was so overcrowded that we were literally walking over each other,” Khaki said.
He was still waiting for results of a coronavirus test.
On the other hand, Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal said officials were "catering, facilitating, helping, accommodating, medically assisting and securing" all the pilgrims at Taftan,
In a tweet, the CM said: "Would ask all province reps please think 10 times before saying Taftan. Did you send a single person to see your own people or send assistance?"
Experts wary of facilities in South Asia
As the number of coronavirus cases in South Asia ramps up, experts fear unsanitary testing and quarantine centres could present a problem in the densely-populated region.
Authorities in the region have struggled to get travellers to self-isolate or stay quarantined in medical facilities that many view as poor and unhygienic.
Public health experts say poor facilities in the region could speed up the spread of the virus, and authorities should encourage people who test positive to quarantine themselves at home.