QUETTA: The Balochistan chief minister on Thursday dismissed criticism over the alleged lack of facilities at the Taftan quarantine facility, saying that the provincial government’s efforts to help thousands of Pakistanis, most of them pilgrims, returning from Iran during the novel coronavirus outbreak must be appreciated.
In recent days, video clips showing people forced to live in filthy conditions with limited medical care at quarantine camps in Taftan – a border town of Balochistan situated about 633km from the provincial capital Quetta – and other areas of the province have gone viral on social media platforms.
Several residents can be seen crammed inside rooms increasing the risk of spreading the virus, turning the camps into breeding grounds for disease as healthy people are potentially exposed to infected ones.
The videos 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.
The provincial government has come under fire on both the mainstream and social media for its poor handling of the people quarantined at the Taftan camp.
"It’s unfortunate that some analysts on mainstream media are describing Taftan as the ‘Wuhan’ [the epicenter of COVID-19 in China] of Pakistan," Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal said in a video message.
He maintained that anchorpersons, politicians and analysts on TV talk shows were not taking the coronavirus situation seriously.
"The virus is not produced in Taftan. In Wuhan, the virus spread within the community and then to the whole world," he added.
"Yes, pilgrims returned from Iran and they entered Pakistan from the Taftan border after the Iranian government refused to keep them there."
Kamal said the Balochistan government had to quarantine the people returning from the neighbouring country at the Taftan border.
“The pilgrims were coming from Qom and other places in Iran where the virus had spread rapidly.”
The chief minister insisted that the facilities at the Taftan camp should not be compared with the quarantine facility in Sukkur.
“Sukkur is a major city of the Sindh province and Taftan is in the middle of a desert where makeshift lodging arrangements for the pilgrims returning from Iran were the only option."
The Sindh government has declared flats with around 1,000 rooms as a quarantine facility in Sukkur for the Pakistanis returning from Iran.
"Unlike Taftan, there are Aga Khan and Indus hospitals and other medical facilities in Karachi where COVID-19 patients can easily receive medical treatment,” the chief minister said.
“Anyhow, at least Balochistan received some attention because of the Taftan quarantine facility,” he added sarcastically, referring to the years of neglect and underfunding the province has suffered. "I wish Balochistan was recognised for its positive aspects too."
Kamal elaborated that the pilgrims returning from Iran were quarantined in Taftan and then sent to their respective provinces.
"No one is allowed to leave without fulfilling the health-related formalities," he added. "Let me ask you a question," the chief minister said. "During the last 20 days, what is the figure of the Pakistanis who have returned from the US, the UK, Europe, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and the Far East? Have they been quarantined for 14 days? Are the authorities concerned testing them for COVID-19?" he went on.
"If the answer is no, then I would advise analysts that they shouldn’t worry about the Pakistanis quarantined at the Taftan camp and stop reminding us about our responsibilities.”
The chief minister noted that over 100,000 Pakistanis had returned on international flights and landed in different cities. “The media should discuss about them, not Taftan."
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.
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 spend two more weeks in 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.
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.