Quarantined pilgrims join volunteers in protest at Sukkur isolation centre

They moved towards the Sukkur facility’s gates after volunteers were refused entry

Z Ali/Sameer Mandhro March 22, 2020
The isolation centre in Sukkur. PHOTO: SINDH GOVT

HYDERABAD/ KARACHI: Dozens of travellers quarantined at Sukkur’s Labour Colony joined external volunteers in a protest against the administration for refusing the volunteers access to the quarantined zone.

The volunteers, who belong to Shia Ulema Council, a political party, and Jafaria Disaster Council (JDC), a Karachi based non-governmental organization, claimed that they had been supplying food, water, fruit and other necessary items to those kept in isolation since the day after they arrived in Sukkur from the Taftan border.

At least 291 pilgrims at the centre have tested positive for coronavirus, while 245 have been cleared. Hundreds more are awaiting the results of diagnostic testing.

Quarantined in different blocks of Labour Colony, which has been turned into a coronavirus isolation facility, many people left their apartments on hearing that a cleric and JDC volunteers had been denied entry by security guards due to safety protocols. Shouting slogans, they moved towards the main gate, while others, watching from their rooms, made videos of the protest on their phones.

“The protest only lasted for a few minutes; we have not taken the law into our hands,” one of the protesting pilgrims stated while talking to The Express Tribune. “It was against the attitude they showed our leaders. They brought food for us.”

The protesters also insisted they had not damaged any property or hurt anyone. “This was a peaceful protest,” another pilgrim told The Express Tribune, adding that those who had tested positive for coronavirus did not leave their rooms. “I was watching the protest and it seemed that most of the people stayed in their rooms.”

Meanwhile, Sindh health department spokesperson Meeran Yousuf explained that the volunteers who wanted to enter the premises were turned away because they did not have any protective gear.

Shia Ulema Council provincial vice president Syed Muazzam Shah Jahania told The Express Tribune that the administration had permitted them to enter the zone’s outskirts for the first three or four days.

“But on Saturday the volunteers were told that the security guards had orders not to let them enter the premises,” he stated, adding that even when the volunteers entered the premises, they stayed away from the flats and never met those in isolation.

However, this distance may have been compromised during the protest, with some reports saying that volunteers and quarantined protesters were able to mingle.

A local health official, though, said it was not possible for anyone quarantined to leave the colony. “Why would they escape?” he asked.

Another pilgrim, who reached Sukkur on Monday, concurred. “There is tight security and anyway, no one wants to leave without official permission,” he explained, adding that he had submitted his sample for testing on Wednesday and was waiting for the results along with many others. He further said that many of those who had tested positive appeared healthy.

Voicing grievances

Jahania claimed that the need to supply food, water and other necessities to those in quarantine arose when their families and the party received complaints about food of low quality and impure water.

“These people, who returned very tired from their trip to Iran and who stayed in miserable conditions for two weeks at the Taftan border, were made to live in buildings here where even the infrastructural work hadn’t been completed,” he said, adding that they had even complained about the poor drainage system in the flats.

Meanwhile, the protesters claimed that they had been forced to live in poor conditions, where they were being kept like prisoners and being given partially cooked meals. They also claimed that the water tanks in the apartments were empty, adding that the security personnel did not permit their families or volunteers to bring them clothes either.

Provincial transport minister Syed Owais Shah, Sukkur commissioner Shafiq Mahesar and other officials later negotiated with them, assuring them that the government would address their concerns. The protesters dispersed after receiving further reassurances from Shia Ulema Council provincial president Allama Syed Nazir Abbas Taqvi, who has been in Sukkur for the last few days.

Staying connected

The protest erupted when some of the volunteers sent the quarantined pilgrims messages that their food was not being allowed inside.

“They are fully connected with each other as well as people outside the facility,” said a local health official. “They spent most of their time on social media,” he explained, adding that there was a lot of negative propaganda against the quarantine facilities. 

Published in The Express Tribune, March 22nd, 2020.

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