More than 400 people have escaped from a coronavirus quarantine centre in Malawi’s second largest city, Blantyre, after complaining about its poor state.
The 441 Malawians were bussed home on Monday from South Africa, where they were left stranded after the country closed its borders in March to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
More than a dozen were staying in an isolation centre after testing positive for the virus at the border.
The rest had been quarantined at a soccer stadium, where they were awaiting further test results.
“They have all gone home on their own,” district health officer Gift Kawaladzira told AFP.
“By then, 16 were positive already. Others were waiting for lab results,” he said. “If most of them have COVID-19, then we are facing very difficult times ahead.”
Kawaladzira said his team had mobilised other district offices to track down the escapees.
“The danger is that they will be hiding from authorities and hence cannot follow the set procedures for COVID-19 prevention,” he warned.
Doreen Lemani, who worked as a domestic cleaner in South Africa, said she returned home to Malawi fleeing tough economic conditions under the lockdown, only to be met by chaos in Blantyre.
“They did not provide us with food, and the toilets and showers here are in a horrible state. How did they expect us to stay here?” asked the woman, who was among those who left the stadium.
“We had wilfully offered ourselves to be tested, but this is chaos… Now they are telling us that they can’t find our test results,” the woman told a local TV station.
Malawi has recorded just 101 coronavirus cases so far, including four deaths.
South Africa by contrast has the highest number of infections of the continent, with more than 24,000 cases and 524 fatalities to date.
“I can guarantee you that the repatriation itself caused a lot of the people themselves to get sick,” warned Gama Bandawe, a virologist at the Malawi University of Science and Technology.
“Think about all the security personnel looking after these people, the escapees and the families of people. It’s a very big danger.”