Police and other security agencies are on manhunts for quarantine inmates after hundreds of people, some with the coronavirus, fled isolation centers in Zimbabwe and Malawi while authorities worry they will spread COVID-19 in countries whose health systems can be rapidly overwhelmed.
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. And in Zimbabwe, police spokesman Paul Nyathi said officers were “hunting down” more than 100 people who escaped from centers where a 21-day quarantine is mandatory for those returning from abroad.
“They escape and sneak into the villages … We are warning people to stop sheltering them. These escapees are becoming a serious danger to communities,” Nyathi said.
Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s 75 new cases this week came from the centers that hold hundreds of people who have returned, sometimes involuntarily, from neighboring South Africa and Botswana.
The quarantine centers have become “our source of danger,” Health Minister Obadiah Moyo told a special parliamentary committee this week.
Both Zimbabwe and Malawi have fewer than 200 confirmed cases but regional power South Africa, where many in both countries go to seek work, has more than 25,000. South Africa has the most cases in Africa, where the continent-wide total is nearly 125,000.
Zimbabwe’s information minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, on Wednesday 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.
Zimbabwe’s government is also worried about people crossing porous borders and failing to report at quarantine centers. The information ministry has begun sharing a hotline number and asking people to stop harboring “border jumpers” and those who “abscond” from quarantine.
Malawi saw another mass escape earlier this week when 26 people left the Mwanza border post while waiting for test results. People arriving in the country face a mandatory 14-day quarantine.