KARACHI: In a frightening call, preceded by denials, uncertainty and confusion, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani finally announced on Wednesday that the virus has spread to almost all provinces of the country. The impact of the announcement was also felt across the border in Pakistan House, where 1,800 people have been kept in quarantine at the moment, amid fear of a coronavirus outbreak.
Those kept in quarantine are the pilgrims, students and businessmen returning from various areas of Iran, including Quorum.
Though, built to accommodate 2,500 to 3,000 pilgrims frequenting neighbouring Iran from Pakistan at a time, recently surfaced videos showed that it may not even suitable to accommodate a mere 1,800. One of the videos, of a large hall in the house, depicts the dire state of the people kept in the house who can be seen lolling on the mattress, a group of three sharing a single mattress- a detail that raises further questions on measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus. Among them was 27-year-old Ahsan Ali*, a student at a university in Iran, who entered Pakistan after crossing the border at Iran on February 29, to visit his home town.
Ali said that the house comprised four such halls as shown in the video and 60 toilets, though only 40 of them were operational. And those in use were in a dilapidated condition, he said. According to Ali, besides pilgrims, students and businessmen returning from different parts of Iran too had been quarantined in Pakistan House, with no health measures to follow. Students and businessmen being made to live with pilgrims – who are more likely to have contracted the virus – not just put the health of the former two at risk but also led to a problem of lack of space, he expressed concern.
“[The] pilgrims visited Quorum, the epicentre of coronavirus in Iran, so they should be kept in isolation from others to prevent the outbreak of the virus. However, no such measures are taken here,” he said. Ali’s concerns are corroborated by a video of the house showing people occupying even the narrow hallways, having been left with no other option. Expressing his fear, Ali said, “[Now] I feel more prone and exposed to coronavirus because of overcrowding and lack of facilities. In case a single person is affected by the virus, everyone would die here.”
Further elaborating on the issue, Ali revealed that no soap or hand wash was available to the people – use of which is seen as essential to safeguard oneself against coronavirus in the absence of a vaccine and remedy. Adding to the severity of the problem is the lack of proper bathrooms and hence, people there are forced to take a bath in toilets, he said.
Sharing his ordeal, Ali said, “I wanted to take a bath yesterday (Monday) but I had to take it in a toilet as here there is no bathroom for the purpose.”
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However, a more serious issue is yet to be highlighted.
As per Ali, throughout the course of his stay (since February 29), only one screening of the quarantined persons has been conducted.
“We are [now] at the mercy of God as no further tests were conducted,” he said, adding that during the visit of medical teams if any from among them complained of fever, he or she was given Panadol tablets.
Left with little choice, the quarantined finally took to streets on Monday to protest the lack of facilities and demand that in case the facilities couldn’t be provided, they are allowed to leave for their homes.
Locals of Taftan, furious on the condition of quarantined, were already holding a protest insisting the authorities to release people over the fear of an outbreak of the virus in the locals. Quarantined people joined the protest.
“Two protests were ongoing simultaneously so Frontier Corps forcefully ended our demonstration and sent us back in the camp,” said Ali regretting that no positive outcome of the protest emerged. However, the protest leaders were taken into custody by the officials and were punished.
Taftan Assistant Commissioner Najeebullah Qambrani claimed that pilgrims were kept separate from others at Pakistan House.
“People in the centre have already spent seven days across the border, therefore, we would soon release them after seven or eight days,” he said adding that the quarantine period lasts 15 days.
Qambrani asserted that new pilgrims returning from Iran were kept separate so their quarantine period would not clash with the others.
Expressing satisfaction on the medical facilities at the house, the AC said, “Medical teams along with World Health Organisation representatives are working here.
Besides, we have provided masks to the people for prevention of the outbreak and in case of diagnosis of any other disease, we are shifting them to District Headquarters hospital.”
He revealed that a hepatitis patient has been shifted to DHQ hospital on Monday.
Responding to a question on protester’s demands, the AC termed it a conspiracy of some regular visitors instigating innocent ones to protest against the authorities in order to allow them to leave.
“People at the centre won’t have any issue except that mass people are kept here,” said Qambrani adding that they would not be allowed to leave until the quarantine period ended.
Besides, Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr Zafar Mirza also visited Taftan border last week.
The spokesperson of the SAPMrevealed that the primary purpose of SAPM’s visit at the border was to examine the situation of pilgrims stranded there and help in their gradual return without compromising on safety considerations. Pilgrims’ entry in Pakistan in batches, and quarantine of those coming in, was ensured.
Moreover, health screening and availability of health services for pilgrims were also planned during the visit and these services including isolation of those exhibiting symptoms would start functioning during the current week, the spokesperson added.
In response to a question on protesters’ demands, he added that the discomfort is natural because 1,700 people were kept in a building for some time. However, the authorities consulted with the protesters and counselled them after which they calmed down and settled back.
“Denying permission to them to leave the place was in theirs and their families’ benefit in order to minimise the transfer of potential infection,” said the spokesperson.
On Wednesday, Chagai Deputy Commissioner Fateh Khan Khajjak also visited the house and had a meeting with student leaders and Salaars.
The DC ensured the attendees that the people would be released on March 7 and the authorities might provide them facilities to reach their homes.
Ali was satisfied with the quality of food the authorities were providing but he demanded that he and others should be sent to hospitals of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad — from where they belong — where quarantine facilities were available.