The government has deployed army officers to guard Covid-19 quarantine centres around the country and also track down people who have escaped from the facilities.
As of Saturday, a total of 148 returning residents had escaped from quarantine facilities, threatening the country’s efforts to contain the pandemic.
The centres, which have often been described as detention camps because of the lack of basic social amenities like running water, were established around the country to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Chief Covid-19 national coordinator in the Office of the President and Cabinet Agnes Mahomva said the government had, upon realising the severity of the situation, deployed soldiers to beef up security at quarantine centres as well as to assist track down escapees.
“If you escape from quarantine, you would have committed a crime and it becomes a matter beyond health, so soldiers and police officers are tracking those who escaped for prosecution. They have also been deployed to secure the quarantine centres because these deportees are a real cause for concern, particularly when they escape like that and go into the communities as some have done,” Mahomva said.
Official sources also said soldiers were called in after it emerged that police officers were facing serious challenges in trying to locate those running away from the mandatory 21-day quarantine.
National police spokesperson Paul Nyathi last week said police had only apprehended 24 of the 148 people who escaped from various quarantine centres across the country.
“This is now being treated as a war but one which is being fought against an unseen enemy, so the army had to get actively involved before things go really bad. These returnees have been the biggest drivers of the virus in the country as evidenced by testing figures. So they pose a very big security threat and have to be caught,” a government official said.
The development comes amid serious concerns over the threat posed by the continuous mass deportations of Zimbabweans from countries in the region, mainly South Africa and Botswana.
South Africa, the country hit hardest by the pandemic on the continent, has to date deported 538 Zimbabweans while Botswana has deported 368.
Director of the Beira police provincial command Fernando Ribeiro this week told journalists that Mozambique has deported a total of 43 Zimbabweans for violating lockdown measures, although outstaying residence permits and lack of documents were the two main causes of the deportations.
Under current visa waiver agreements, citizens of all Sadc countries can remain on casual visit in a respective Sadc country for a period not exceeding 30 days.
Virus testing by both sending and receiving countries before and after deportation, however, has been far from reliable or robust. Although mass testing has proven to be effective in other jurisdictions, economically hamstrung regional countries have only been testing deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever, due to a shortage of test kits.
A senior Botswana immigration spokesperson Onkarabile Nato told the Zimbabwe Independent this week that the country would continue deporting illegal immigrants.
She also said most deportations involved those who were voluntarily offering themselves up for repatriation.
“In most cases, these are people who do menial jobs and have gathered themselves in groups after losing their income because of the lockdown to voluntarily go back home. We assist them in that regard. This is happening on a weekly basis and all illegal immigrants will be deported,”
“There are, of course, cases of border jumpers. If they are caught, they will be repatriated to their respective countries.”
Zimbabwe’s confirmed Covid-19 cases have ballooned in just one week from 56 to 206 (Wednesday figures), with the majority of them being returning and deported citizens.
Those who have escaped from quarantine include ex-convicts.