Manhunts after hundreds flee quarantine centers in Zimbabwe, Malawi

Manhunts have begun after hundreds of people, some with the coronavirus, fled quarantine centers in Zimbabwe and Malawi while authorities worry they will spread COVID-19 in countries whose health systems can be rapidly overwhelmed.

The Zimbabwe government has released a wanted person list of individuals that escaped from quarantine centres as the country’s Covid-19 positive cases inch closer to 300.

The list has 48 people, some of whom gave fake addresses. Zimbabwe’s information secretary Nick Mangwana said because they broke the law they should be apprehended.

“Absconding from a quarantine centre is breaking the law,” he said.

“They escape and sneak into the villages … We are warning people to stop sheltering them. These escapees are becoming a serious danger to communities,”.

In total 150 people have escaped from quarantine centres. Only 23 have so far been apprehended and fined (ZW$500).

In Malawi, more than 400 people recently repatriated from South Africa and elsewhere fled a center at a stadium in Blantyre, jumping over a fence or strolling out the gate while police and health workers watched. Police and health workers told reporters they were unable to stop them as they lacked adequate protective gear.

At least 46 escapees had tested positive for the virus. Some of those who fled told reporters they had bribed police.

Both Zimbabwe and Malawi have fewer than 500 confirmed cases but regional power house South Africa, where many in both countries go to seek work, has more than 45,000.

The quarantine period in Zimbabwe is 21 days but because of hunger and squalid conditions, some people have chosen to escape.

Zimbabwe’s information minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, told reporters that the government is increasing security at the schools, colleges, and hotels used as quarantine centers. Government spokesman Nick Mangwana suggested that security officers guarding centers with high walls and razor wire might be receiving bribes to allow people to leave early.

A report by the Information for Development Trust revealed that on being registered at a quarantine centre, a person receives two blankets, one bar of soap, a toilet roll that is shared by three people, toothpaste that is shared by two people and one disposable mask for the duration of their stay.

Malawi is continuing to see a mass escape of people crossing the border post while waiting for test results. People arriving in the country face a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

South Africa, a developed economy that attracts migrant workers from across the region, has more than 45,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 –the most in the Continent. There are fears that the outbreak there could spread across southern Africa, where health systems are considerably less able to cope.