Is policing pandemics different than maintaining law and order?

Bobby Ramakant *

Among the first responders in times of emergencies or crises is often expected to be the police. This was no different when Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt. The public health emergency arising due to the pandemic, as well as cascading humanitarian crises in several countries and communities, only made the job of the police even more challenging.

We often hear the public health viewpoints of frontline workers but seldom does one get to hear the perspectives of the police. In an important session hosted by the Global Law Enforcement and Public Health Association (GLEPHA), voices of senior police officers from a few South Asian nations, as well as experts from the World Health Organization (WHO), helped put the spotlight on pandemic policing.

no simple solution to pandemic policing

A part of the solution may lie in effective intersectoral approaches that bring together different partners who are united for a shared cause. Not just Professor Nick Crofts, Executive Director of GLEPHA, shared similar opening insights but this message also came from other panelists later in the session.

Mukta Sharma of the WHO South-East Asian Regional Office said that the South Asian region was heavily hit by the pandemic. Out of the 110 million cases of Covid-19 in the world, over 12 million occurred in the South Asian region so far (541,000 Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh; 10.9 million in India; 273,000 in Nepal; 566,000 in Pakistan; and 77,184 in Sri Lanka).

The pandemic has highlighted that police are an integral and critical part of the public health workforce, and we cannot achieve the public health goals of community safety and well-being without active engagement of police as full public health partners.

Sharma added that the police played a range of roles in the pandemic response- from enforcement of the lockdown to supporting funerals of those who had died due to Covid-19 but their bodies were left unclaimed.

Suhai Aziz Talpur, a senior superintendent of police from Sindh region in Pakistan said that out of the 900 police workers who died due to Covid-19 in the country, 24 were from her region (those who died due to the coronavirus while serving on duty were accorded martyr status). She was responsible for enforcing the lockdown in the south of Sindh region when it was imposed in end of March 2020. Every entry and exit point of the city was managed by police workers.

Citizens who returned from countries severely hit by the pandemic (like Iran, Italy, or China) were especially properly screened, quarantined and monitored, along with contact tracing done with relevant agencies. Quarantine centres were safeguarded by the police workers from outside and the task of managing the public as well as relatives of those quarantined was done by the police. As the financial impact of the pandemic was very severe, counselling, even if difficult, had to be done by the police.

Moreover, when price control and hoarding began, then it was the police who, along with the district administration, had to shoulder the responsibility to check it and ensure that people did not run out of any essential goods. With rising unemployment, maintaining law and order too posed additional challenges.

Another important role of police was in distributing cooking gas cylinders and/or grocery at the doorsteps of the people.

domestic violence increased during the pandemic

She underlined how domestic violence cases rose during the lockdown because "abuser was at home most of the times. Female police officers were overburdened with dealing" with gender-based violence reports, she said.

training for pandemic policing

Talpur pointed out that even though police rules of 1934 have a mention of pandemic, but that is not enough in terms of relevance as well as the training required to deal with pandemics of today, such as the Covid-19. So, she, along with her colleagues, had to improvise and respond accordingly as the situation emerged. Training of police workers to coordinate with other agencies during a pandemic or a disaster is necessary (both for disaster preparedness as well as for disaster prevention).

united we stand

On a positive note, she remarked that commendable coordination developed between healthcare workers and the police due to the pandemic, which was not there to that extent before. Earlier police and public health agencies coordinated around immunization programmes (like for polio) as healthcare workers had to go to difficult to reach areas where police protection became necessary. But the degree of coordination between police, health agencies and other partners during the pandemic was remarkable.

Shehela Pervin, Superintendent of Police from Bangladesh highlighted that as a first frontline responder, the police were challenged to remain fit while doing their duty to enforce Covid-19 prevention measures in the country. As police workers stay in barracks and share bathrooms, vehicles, and other spaces, maintaining social distancing itself was a challenge for them.

The Inspector General of Police of Bangladesh stepped in to mobilize separate barracks for them, and even hotels were arranged as needed so that the police workers could maintain all public health safeguards themselves and work in a safer manner. Not surprisingly, transmission within the police dropped significantly, she said. 79 police workers have lost their lives to Covid-19 in Bangladesh so far.

Police was tasked to raise awareness about Covid-19 among the public and engage and encourage the people to follow all infection control measures in place. Moreover, after the lockdown, police had an additional role to ensure that economic activities could resume without compromising public health protocols in place.

Pervin confirmed that as the police is part of frontline fighters of Covid-19, they are eligible for vaccination enrolment that is currently going on in the country. She also underlined the importance of an empathetic and courteous coordination with different agencies, including healthcare workers, for working in an integrated manner towards an effective response to a pandemic or a disaster.

Dinesh Kumar Acharya, Superintendent of Police in Nepal, is also in-charge of Covid-19 Central Health Desk of Nepal Police. He coordinates with different agencies in Nepal for effective response to the pandemic, as well as shoulders other roles like recording infection among police personnel, and managing isolation, hospitalization, and transportation of infected police personnel, among others.

Keeping lot of people under custody for different offences would have been counterproductive in terms of infection control. So, during the pandemic arrest and detention for investigation purposes was avoided where possible, said Acharya.

Ensuring that all police workers had infection prevention tools (like masks, sanitizers, and also personal protective equipment if needed) and their workplaces were safe for them to work from, were also important tasks on his list.

Nepal’s border with China had no movement but its open border with India posed a challenge, with many people returning to the country with the imposition of the lockdown. Quarantine centres were organized closer to the border for such returning people.

Maintaining supply chain of essential goods, like food and medicines, was a major challenge with clampdown on vehicular movement in the country. So, the police had to step in to ensure that the supply of essential goods does not run out and those in need are able to procure them. Police had also to check against stockpiling and/ or black marketing or smuggling of essential goods too.

People were not informed fully or sensitized before the lockdown got clamped. Many people were left stranded and had to walk long distances (in some cases for up to 8-10 days) to return to their homes. There was resistance from local communities against those returning due to fear of contracting the infection from them. So, the police had to intervene to manage the situation.

"People infected were looked down upon like criminals" said Acharya. Communities were blocking the road or locking doors from outside of those who got infected. Such misconceptions, stigma and discrimination posed serious challenges even for the police.

Another important learning from Acharya was the commendable role of police in data collection – like which hospital has a bed or where an ICU or a ventilator is available – and using this information strategically in real time to help save a life.

Karl Roberts, a behavioural scientist who is also a WHO consultant on policing and pandemics (based in University of Western Sydney), said that some learnings from Covid-19 are illustrative of the challenges police face – "if there is nobody to do the job then police will do it" had said Nepal’s police officer Acharya. Often police are given little time to think about how to respond to rules which are handed over to them to deal with.

Maintaining personal safety and wellbeing, as well as safer workplaces, in order for them to do justice to their roles and responsibilities, is key to operational effectiveness. Lack of preparedness added to the woes. Deaths among police workers, increased workload, or absentees, were other issues that impacted how effectively police could carry on their normal duties, let alone additional responsibilities during the pandemic.

One elephant in the room when we discuss pandemic policing is even in so-called 'non-pandemic times', how unequal, unethical, or unjust law enforcement could be against certain groups. Reasons could be diverse - racial inequity or caste or religion or political leanings or gender, among a range of others – but it is true that marginalized people are most at risk of slipping on the blind spot during a pandemic or a disaster.

Pandemic policing is different from traditional law enforcement as measures like stops, searches, and arrests create a substantial risk of infection spread for police, suspects and other community members alike.

Perhaps the forthcoming virtual Sixth International Conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health (LEPH 2021, will further provide more insights on this very important issue, rightly concluded Dr Tim France, a noted global health security advocate who leads Inis Communication.

* Bobby Ramakant – CNS (Citizen News Service) wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at ramakantbobby(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was webcasted on February 18 2021 .

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