June 11, 2020 / 11:10 AM / a month ago

In Paraguay's coronavirus war, isolation centers exact a heavy toll

ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay’s coronavirus camps, obligatory for anyone entering the South American country, have garnered praise from international health bodies for helping stem the spread of the epidemic. The government calls them the “first line of defense”.

People sit under trees at a facility that quarantines people who have entered the country, in an effort to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Asuncion, Paraguay June 4, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

Yet half a dozen people interviewed by Reuters who passed through the camps or monitored them raised concerns about the conditions of the hundreds of returning citizens held there. Some said dormitories were cramped, risking the spread of the virus, and people could be confined for many weeks with scarce information.

Paraguay’s network of 54 mostly military-run shelters illustrates how some countries are employing extreme measures to hold back the virus, sometimes at the cost of individual rights, human rights advocates and those who lived in the camps say.

As Latin America has become an epicenter of the pandemic, Paraguay has emerged as an example of successful containment. The landlocked nation of 7 million people has recorded just 1,202 confirmed cases and 11 deaths, one of the region’s lowest.

In neighboring Brazil, the government has downplayed social distancing measures and failed to contain the outbreak. With nearly 740,000 cases, Brazil has the second highest number of infections behind the United States and the third highest death toll in the world at 38,000.

Around 65% of Paraguay’s confirmed cases have been confined to the shelters, government data show, as the rest of the country has slowly reopened.

“Our hospitals are empty because the shelters are full. It is the first line of defense,” said Federico González, a policy adviser to Paraguay’s president who leads the shelter project, when asked about the conditions.

“The shelters are internationally recognized as one of the factors that enable Paraguay’s good results in its fight against the pandemic,” he told Reuters.

Reuters was not able to confirm cases of infection within the centers and was not granted access to the shelters.

Lieutenant Colonel Víctor Urdapilleta, a spokesman for the military, said they had received “practically no complaints of discomfort”.

However, some of those who went through the shelters say it felt like being detained. Until recently, people had no choice but to stay in the camps for weeks before they could leave. Now those with funds can pay to stay in designated hotels.

“Our biggest despair was how crowded it was,” said Paola Canova, 43, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, who flew from the United States on March 20 and was held in a shelter for 17 days.

Canova said many people had only the clothes on their back, while a lack of information created panic. Healthcare professionals rarely entered the shelter and residents had to notify authorities if someone fell sick, she said.

“If you are healthy you will probably get it at the hostel,” she added, though admitted the shelters had stopped the virus’ spread in the wider population. “But it should be done in a dignified way, respecting people, because we are not animals.”

Gonzalez, the presidential adviser, said most of those infected had arrived in Paraguay with the virus but it was possible there was some transmission within the shelters.

“PRISON”

Paraguay requires anyone entering the country to stay in an isolation shelter until they test negative for the virus at least three times.

Paraguay, which established the shelters in March after authorities said some infected people were breaking quarantine, is not alone in Latin America curbing freedom of movement to fight the virus.

In Cuba people entering the country or suspected of having come into contact with the virus must go to isolation centers.

A 43-year-old Paraguayan woman who returned to her country from Miami said she was taken on military buses to a cadet school converted to a shelter on the outskirts of Asunción where she held for 20 days with around 120 others.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, said she slept in a bunk in a pavilion with 37 other women, with whom she shared a bathroom. She described it as a “prison”.

“The confinement was desperate ... I was afraid of catching (the virus) in an environment where I could then have to go to another center for an even longer time,” she said.

Lieutenant Colonel Urdapilleta said Paraguay was refining its approach to the pandemic but said the armed forces were playing a key role in the “health war”.

“Just like any country in the world, our country was not prepared for this pandemic, and we had to learn,” he said.

HARD TO CONTROL

Luis Escoto at the World Health Organization’s Paraguay office told Reuters the centers were key to containing the epidemic. Without them, the virus could have become very hard to control and the country could have seen an enormous number of cases, he said.

Around 6,000 Paraguayans have returned from abroad in the last few months, most from neighboring Brazil.

Paraguayan authorities have looked to soften the rules, allowing health hotels since mid-May to house people who can pay for their stay.

Oscar Ayala, top executive of local human rights body Codehupy, said problems remained and his group was readying to send lawyers to visit the facilities.

“There are places that don’t have the appropriate conditions to hold people for weeks or months,” he said.

“While the shelters have brought positive results for society in general ... they put a significant burden on the people who are there.”

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Celeste Amarilla, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Party, said that, while things had got better, many people early on “had become ill in those places”.

A 21-year-old student, also at the cadet school shelter, said she had tested positive for COVID-19 after being in the same dormitory as others free of the virus. She was then moved to a separate area for infected people.

“They told me I should prepare to stay there for 45 days, that stressed me out a lot,” she said. She was allowed to leave last week after being held for over a month.

Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Lisa Shumaker

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