Returnees at quarantine centres: We are being treated like prisoners

Returnees housed in quarantine centres in Bulawayo have raised concerns of the deplorable conditions at the government facilities, with some complaining of overcrowding, lack of testing and overstaying beyond the mandatory 21 days.

According to the government, the mandatory quarantine period for returning residents and international travellers is 21 days, with testing conducted on Day One, Day Eight and Day 21.

The country has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases with most of them being recorded among returnees.

Currently, the country has 206 confirmed cases since the first positive case was recorded on March 201, 2020.

Speaking to CITE some of the returnees at the United Education College (UCE) and Bulawayo Polytechnic quarantine centres said they were living in squalid condition and were being treated like prisoners.

A Zimbabwean returnee speaks on the conditions at the quarantine centres

“We have children who are sick, some have heart problems but we are not receiving attention. We are in a dilemma because we don’t know what to do, it’s as if we are in jail, treated like prisoners yet we in quarantine,” said one of the female returnees at UCE who spoke on condition of anonymity.

She also claimed that some of the returnees who had tested positive for COVID-19 at the centres were not being isolated.

“We have tried following the protocols but it doesn’t help if our concerns are ignored. This is why we think it’s better to escape because we are not being taken seriously.”

Contacted for a comment, Deputy Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare, Lovemore Matuke, said the unhygienic conditions were a serious concern and he will dispatch a team to investigate the claims.

“It is our responsibility to make sure the returnees stay safe, whilst I can’t promise them any comfort in a quarantine centre we will try. I will send a senior official to visit the place so that these challenges are fixed. We don’t take these complaints lightly, we will make sure systems are on the ground and I will call the directors of these quarantine centres,” he said.

Matuke noted another challenge was that there were different levels of people quarantined in one place and “some people, even the rich would find it hard to be comfortable.”

“When we went for a visit last time in Bulawayo, the quarantine centres were not that bad and as for overcrowding, we are opening up public service training centres to accommodate more returnees,” he said.

The deputy minister said he could not comment on lack of testing, as that fell under the Ministry of Health and Child Care.

“But as you know, the country doesn’t produce testing kits and imports these where there is a high demand for the same products so there won’t be enough to assist. I will make an inquiry with the Ministry of Health to ask where the problem is,” he said.

Reached for a comment, Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Gibson Mhlanga acknowledged that there was a shortage of testing resources that slowed down testing of returnees.

“We had been having challenges with commodities with test kits but we have received test kits from the African Union and some that were procured in batches, these are now coming up,” he said.

Dr Mhlanga said from this Tuesday, everyone in the quarantine centres would be tested under the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing method.

“Starting today (Tuesday) we are testing everyone in quarantine centres with PCR so that we able to pick those who are positive and then send them to isolation centres. So on Day One we will do PCR, Day Eight do PCR and Day 21 we do PCR, to focus on the positives so that we discharge them,” he said.

On concerns of overcrowding and mixing in the quarantine centres, Dr Mhlanga said returnees must abide by social distancing protocols and wear face masks.

“They should not mix but practice social distancing and follow medical advice that is given to them. They must wash their hands and wear face masks but people don’t follow advice, if they follow it, there won’t be any room for cross-infection,” he noted.

“Yes face masks should be provided at the quarantine centres and people are urged to wash their hands with soap and water. Of course, hand sanitisers are for hose walking around with no access to clean water, so soap and water equally works.”

Dr Mhlanga said the government would use rapid testing for surveillance but for those in quarantine and isolation centres, PCR was ideal for screening.

“If we test many people we can see the positivity rate and be able to deal with case management,” he said.

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