When the great influenza pandemic of 1918, often called the Spanish flu, hit the world, it caused more than 50 million deaths worldwide. Almost 100 years later, the world is staring at COVID-19 with awe and fear. India’s population has increased fivefold since then — from 25 crore to more than 1.3 billion. The Spanish flu consumed more than 17 million Indian lives. The impact of COVID-19 is yet to unfold on India.
Given the level of preparedness and lockdowns across various states of the country, we might be able to face this pandemic with a great degree of success. India has been quite successful so far in countering the direct impact of the virus on one of the world’s densest population.
Ground-level plans to counter a pandemic like COVID-19 mostly consider the role played by government doctors, medical staff, suppliers of commodities and other essential services. There is generally little mention of the role of police. It is typically mentioned in broad terms: police will assist other agencies of the government as and when required.
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Challenges for police
The role of police is not specific in planning the response to a pandemic. This gives it the room to be flexible. There is not a single defined activity that police is bound to perform. Policing offers a very diverse work profile during crisis situations. People, who are already under tremendous stress because of paranoia, have wide-ranging expectations from the police. These expectations include attending to a mohalla fight between two neighbours because one’s kid studying abroad reached home without declaring his/her travel history. A large number of students did so without declaring their travel history and bypassed the mechanisms put in place to screen them. It has become a full-time job for police to trace such travellers and take them to quarantine centres with the help from health officials.
The biggest challenge, however, is to enforce a lockdown. Despite detailed information regarding lockdown over next few days, people tend to venture out. The volume of people at numerous naka points situated throughout a district requires due deliberations and negotiations. There are people who are genuinely under distress and have to move to reach their workplace or hospitals. But at the same time, there are those who are out for the sake of it. It is extremely difficult for the police officers standing on a naka since dawn to sift through all this and verify the genuineness of each one of them. It mostly boils down to prioritising and optimising while thinking on one’s feet.
Another crucial aspect during a pandemic is the conduct of day-to-day policing activities. Crimes don’t stop when a pandemic strikes. The fulcrum of policing in India is the omnipresent Station House Officer (SHO). During a lockdown, the SHO has to be present on the streets throughout the day and even at night if the situation warrants. But, the complainants who go to the police station find the absenteeism of the SHO very unsettling.
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Police families too at risk
District Police Lines are home to a large number of police personnel and their families throughout India. There is a great risk of infection spreading among them, just like in any other residential colony. Infection risk management leads to curtailing the number of policemen on duty and the depletion in ranks, resulting to pressure on those present on duty in a cyclical manner.
People have the tendency to panic during pandemics. This means that police personnel on the ground are very likely to face a multitude of demands. Normal police duties may have to take a back seat, presenting opportunities for criminals. The threat of a terrorist strike on police remains in a place like Kashmir, irrespective of a national health emergency or other natural calamities. Somehow, the terrorists and criminals always manage to avoid getting sick.
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Social media headache
Then there is social media to deal with. Social media demands instant gratification, instant justice and instant punishments. Every indiscretion on part of police can be caught on camera and flashed across the world instantly. This demands a specialised training for policemen to behave with people in public places. It becomes more pertinent during a lockdown because everybody is on the edge. Social media empowers the citizen to report aberrations to the police hierarchy in a swift manner and it leads to improvements on daily basis. Constructive criticism of lacunae on part of the police in implementing effective lockdown can lead to better management the very next day.
Policing during a pandemic in 1918 would have had its own challenges in terms of communication, geographical outreach and awareness about the disease. However, the people were perhaps not as aware of their rights as they are today, were less restless and did not have the urgency brought on by social media.
Policing a pandemic in 2020 has its advantages in terms of logistical preparedness, communication and access to remote areas through faster means of transport. But the citizens of modern era are informed yet unguarded because they are not as scared of the scourge of the disease. While everyone is susceptible to the infection from this virus, the challenge before the police has been to translate the seriousness of its impact and keep people indoors.
Sandeep Chaudhary is SSP Anantnag, Jammu and Kashmir. Views are personal.