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Pakistani pilgrims decry squalid coronavirus quarantine camp


Workers of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Balochistan spray disinfectant on tents at a quarantine camp, prepared for people returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan to prevent the spread the COVID-19 coronavirus, on the outskirts of Quetta on March 9, 2020.  (Photo by Banaras KHAN / AFP) (Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers of the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Balochistan spray disinfectant on tents at a quarantine camp, prepared for people returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan to prevent the spread the COVID-19 coronavirus, on the outskirts of Quetta on March 9, 2020. (Photo by Banaras KHAN / AFP) (Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Hundreds of Pakistanis who returned home from a pilgrimage to Iran are stuck in filthy coronavirus quarantine camps with limited medical care, and fear squalid conditions are helping spread the disease.

Current and former residents of Taftan camp on the border with Iran said the facility lacks running water or flushable toilets, with detainees only able to wash every few days.

Government figures show half of the 241 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Pakistan are in people who went on pilgrimages to Iran — one of the countries hardest-hit by the disease.

Pakistan shares a 960-kilometre (600-mile) 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, said 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.

Nearly 1,000 people have since died, making Iran the third-hardest-hit country after China and Italy.

The Taftan border has been closed since March 16, but thousands of Pakistan Shi’ite 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 show 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’ –

Officials say about 4,600 people are currently being held in Taftan. About 1,800 others have been transferred to their home districts for a further two-week quarantine.

In Sukkur in southern Sindh province, some 172 people have tested positive for coronavirus since spending time in Taftan.

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”.

Najeeb Qambrani, assistant commissioner in Taftan, said the camp’s remote location made it difficult to provide amenities.

“We are providing all the possible facilities,” he said.

But former Taftan confinee Naimat Ali Khaki said conditions were unacceptable.

“There was no cleanliness and it was so overcrowded that we were literally walking over each other,” Khaki said.

He is still waiting for results of a coronavirus test.