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Experts Worried Over South Asia Quarantine Centers

FILE: Pakistani soldiers wearing face masks patrol near the closed Pakistan-Iran border in Taftan in late February.
FILE: Pakistani soldiers wearing face masks patrol near the closed Pakistan-Iran border in Taftan in late February.

When Mrinal Sabharwal and his wife landed in New Delhi with hundreds of other passengers from Barcelona, they expected clean coronavirus quarantine facilities.

Instead, after hours of waiting at the airport on a bus, they were taken to a converted police training center on March 16.

There, the travelers found stained beds seven or eight to a room, dirty floors, and moldy vegetable peelings left in a cupboard. Eighty people on each floor were expected to share a few clogged toilets during their two weeks in quarantine.

As the number of coronavirus cases in South Asia ramps up -- doubling to more than 500 in the past few days -- experts fear unsanitary testing and quarantine centers could present a problem in the densely populated region. This could also render border closures, ban on flights, big gatherings, school closures, and other containment measures relatively ineffective.

Some patients have even broken out of quarantine, putting healthy people at risk.

Sabharwal and four others who have been held at two testing centers in India told Reuters of the unsanitary conditions there -- a pattern repeated in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"We did not want five-star facilities," said Sabharwal, a 33-year-old businessman. "We just wanted clean rooms and sanitized bathrooms."

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.

"Due to the high volume of people requiring quarantine and a lack of hygienic facilities, it is more efficient to encourage quarantine at the homes of the travelers," said Giridhara R Babu, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India.

Sabharwal's account of conditions was corroborated by two others at the facility, along with photographs and video. He was released to be isolated at home early on March 17 after being tested but before his results were available. As of March 18 afternoon, he had still not received the results.

Officials at Delhi's southwestern district, which oversees the quarantine facility, did not respond to requests for comment.

A Regional Problem

Authorities in South Asia have struggled to get travelers to self-isolate or stay quarantined in medical facilities that many view as poor and unhygienic.

In Navi Mumbai, a suburb of Mumbai, local media reported on March 16 that police were forced to launch a manhunt after 11 people who had been isolated after returning from Dubai failed to appear at a hospital for quarantine.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, which share long land borders with Iran -- one of the countries hit worst by the virus -- have reported similar problems at crossing points.

In Pakistan, some politicians branded quarantine facilities "a joke" after footage emerged on social media showing ostensibly quarantined people lodged four or five to a single tent at Taftan, one of the main border crossings with Iran.

Still, Prime Minister Imran Khan called for calm after its tally of coronavirus cases rose to 256.

"Only those with intense symptoms should go to hospital," he said in a late-night television address on March 17. "There is no need to worry. We will fight this as a nation. And God willing, we will win this war."

His comments came amid a growing dispute in Pakistan between federal and provincial authorities, with the latter struggling to secure sufficient coronavirus testing kits and blaming the federal government for failing to properly test and quarantine hundreds of Pakistanis who recently returned home across a land border with Iran.

In neighboring Afghanistan, about 38 Afghans who were in isolation after recently returning from Iran escaped from a facility in western Afghanistan on March 16 after breaking windows and attacking staff. At least one of the fugitives was confirmed to have the coronavirus.

Two people at the camp said doctors lacked basic equipment like masks and gloves.

"They put eight to 10 patients in a small room with a very unhygienic bathroom," said Freba, a 48-year-old woman who goes by one name and said she fled the center in Herat before being sent back to the camp. "A suspect can easily get infected with the virus if he or she gets stuck in such a place."