NEARLY 120 Zimbabweans returning to the country have escaped from isolation and quarantine centres across the country as the government said they posed the greatest threat to efforts to curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
The country has reported 56 confirmed cases and four deaths since the outbreak of COVID-19, and the majority are Zimbabweans returning home.
Zimbabweans have been under lockdown since March 30 but has been gradually easing the measures to help revive its troubled economy which is struggling with acute shortages of fuel, foreign currency, food, electricity and medicines.
All returnees are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine, but some are reportedly bribing their way out or escaping from centres following delays in testing, increasing the chances of spreading the virus.
“A total of 118 people have escaped from various isolation centres throughout the country since the onset of the national lockdown. Some have been arrested while others are being sought by the police,” national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said yesterday.
He said some returnees from neighbouring countries were using undesignated points of entry to avoid immigration formalities and quarantine.
The number of people arrested for violating lockdown regulations is 41 738.
Health minister Obadiah Moyo told Parliament yesterday that the greatest risk for COVID-19 transmission in Zimbabwe was from returnees coming from neighbouring Botswana, Zambia and South Africa, now the continent’s hotspot with over 20 000 cases.
Moyo made the remarks when he appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care which was chaired by Zanu-PF hurungwe Central MP Doubt Ndiweni. Nearly 6 000 Zimbabwean migrants have returned home from neighbouring countries since the outbreak started.
He also told the committee that hotels and lodges were now being identified as quarantine centres in order to facilitate “some comfort” for those returnees who might want to be quarantined at better places.
“The majority of reported COVID-19 cases are the ones of people coming through as returnees and we have less local transmission, showing that our tracking systems are efficient,” Moyo said.
“Our biggest problem is returnees. That is where we are going to get a lot of cases from people coming from South Africa and Botswana, but we cannot stop them from coming back home.”
Recently, six Zimbabwean truck drivers tested positive at Chirundu Border Post while crossing into Zambia. Several illegal immigrants from Malawi have also tested positive in Zimbabwe.
“We discovered that trucks from South Africa would stop before the border and people would alight and cross the Limpopo on foot and then get back onto the truck after it crosses the border. Police also intercepted illegal immigrants from Malawi and some of them tested positive. They will be (sent) home,” he said.
Meanwhile, there was panic in Masvingo town after reports emerged that over 10 people could have tested positive for COVID-19 at a local quarantine centre, Masvingo Teachers College, with the government reportedly ordering retests.
health officials declined to comment on the matter yesterday while Masvingo Provincial Affairs minister Ezra Chadzimira disclosed to NewsDay on Monday that he had received queries related to the tests.
“I have had queries on that issue, but results from samples taken to Harare are yet to be out. I am not yet briefed on that,” Chadzamira, who chairs the provincial COVID-19 taskforce said.
Sources said food shortages and overcrowding were threatening the stay of inmates, adding that they were becoming hostile and exposed to the fast-spreading virus, while those who had tested negative wanted to leave the facility.
Provincial police spokesperson Inspector Charity Mazula denied a standoff between health authorities and the returnees, insisting the police have always been at the quarantine centre guarding the migrants.
“There is no such thing. There was no noise at the quarantine centre. The police have always been deployed there to guard the returnees from escaping,” Mazula said.
Masvingo provincial medical director, Ammadias Shamhu did not respond to queries sent to him.