Coronavirus: US evacuees sprayed with unknown chemicals by Peruvian authorities

Incident follows WHO warning against use of bleach to kill virus

John Hudson
Thursday 09 April 2020 10:22 BST
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Tourists were sprayed with the unknown substance after a quarantine was imposed on their hostel
Tourists were sprayed with the unknown substance after a quarantine was imposed on their hostel (Washington Post)

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Authorities in Peru sprayed down a group of American tourists and other foreigners trying to leave the country with an unknown chemical after imposing a mandatory coronavirus quarantine on their hostel, according to video footage and accounts from several of the evacuees.

The substance discoloured the Americans' clothing and smelled like bleach, but authorities would not tell them what it was, said the evacuees, who shared photos of their stained garments.

“We were shocked,” said Daniel Voznyarskiy, a student at the University of Washington who returned to the United States last week after an involuntary two-week quarantine in southern Peru. “We had no warning whatsoever. They made us do a 360, sprayed us with bleach and sprayed our bags. I closed my eyes and plugged my nose.”

The Peruvian government did not respond to a request for comment.

The use of bleach to disinfect suspected carriers of the rapidly spreading virus has prompted outrage in other parts of the world. In India, where authorities recently sprayed scores of migrants in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh with bleach, officials halted the practice and vowed to discipline those who carried it out.

The World Health Organisation has warned that spraying people with chlorine and other powerful disinfectants can harm their eyes and mouths and “will not kill viruses that have already entered” the body. Bleach and alcohol can disinfect hard surfaces

A State Department representative said: “We have been in touch with local authorities in Cusco on this incident and will continue discussions with our Peruvian counterparts to ensure that health care practices comply with international standards.”

The department has been under pressure to return tens of thousands of Americans to the United States who, like Mr Voznyarskiy, were stranded when foreign governments closed borders and cancelled flights in response to the growing coronavirus pandemic.

The department faced early criticism on its response time and coordination with embassies but has received praise in recent days for streamlining the evacuation process. As of Tuesday, the department had repatriated more than 45,000 citizens from 75 countries.

The dousing marked a low point for Mr Voznyarskiy and dozens of other tourists who were quarantined at the Pariwana hostel in Cusco for two weeks after the government identified two hostel guests as carriers of the coronavirus and prevented anyone from leaving.

Instead of removing the guests who tested positive for the virus, local authorities ordered a mandatory quarantine of at least 28 days for all of the guests, telling some they may have to stay several months.

The more than 120 hostel guests, including several Americans, struggled to practice social distancing in cramped quarters with bunk beds. Many of the guests kept in communication through a group-messaging service, which lit up on the night of 29 March when guests began alerting one another that they were being lined up outside and sprayed with a mystery chemical.

“We were all pretty scared in the group chat,” said Patrick Beach, an Orlando resident who travelled to Cusco on vacation with his girlfriend. “You hear chlorine or bleach, and you know you're not supposed to touch it. So the idea of being sprayed with it is very scary.”

The Americans trapped in the hostel enlisted their representatives in Congress for help, drawing in concerned politicians.

“This alarming situation required urgent attention, and I repeatedly brought it to the attention of the highest levels of the US and Peruvian governments,” said senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat whose constituent Kacie Brandenburg was quarantined at the hostel.

Hostel guests complained of confusing and insufficient information from the Peruvian government and meagre food offerings in the hostel during their quarantine. Being whisked out of their rooms with no warning about a chemical treatment exacerbated the situation.

“Ultimately it just ruined peoples' clothes and everyone was pretty much OK, but the surprise of it all was the worst thing,” Ms Beach said.

The Americans were told by authorities that they could be shot on sight if they left the hostel, even if they had documentation showing that they had a repatriation flight arranged by the US government, Ms Beach said.

Eventually, the Peruvian government, which had suspended international flights last month with 24 hours notice, approved chartered flights by the US government and allowed the Americans to leave the hostel.

“I went to Peru to see Machu Picchu,” Mr Voznyarskiy said. “I didn't expect to be bleached.”

The Washington Post

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