Surveillance in the times of Covid-19 – analysis
Epidemics have devastated civilizations and changed the course of history. In 1918, more than 15 million Indians perished in the Spanish flu outbreak, the last major pandemic that devastated the subcontinent. The flu reportedly reached India through the port of Bombay. Seven police sepoys posted on the Bombay docks were the first to be admitted to the police hospital with “Bombay fever”. Now, when India stops to break the chain of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19), the police force, as one of the essential services, is once again at the forefront of the Herculean task of enforcing this unprecedented national blockade.
Surveillance during the pandemic has no specific guidelines or well-defined roles in shaping the response. The forces are aimed at imposing isolation, but never on such a vast scale. When nervous citizens were caught off guard by the hastily announced closure, police officers risked their lives on the streets to ensure that the country’s 1.3 billion people were safe inside, advising offenders or using force to clear the roads; drawing lakshman rekhas to space people in front of shops and bazaars; stop at naka points (barricade) during the day and night to check cars; spread awareness of social distancing; discipline some for violating restrictions; and arrest foolish criminals. Sure, this sometimes resulted in excessive action, but this was more the exception than the norm. Police also tracked the travel history of those who did not follow detection protocols and took them to quarantine centers.
With a police-to-population ratio of only 192 in India (192 police officers per 100,000 people), this is not an easy task. Labor shortages reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of the police force, and even cause psychological ailments for many. To keep a tight watch on its people during the shutdown in Britain, where the police-to-population ratio is much higher, the forces used high-tech drones.
Despite their best efforts, the unfortunate officers, who form the front line of the force, are often misinformed and portrayed in low light. Despite outdated equipment, communication network failures, and compromised police mobility due to a shortage of vehicles and drivers, our police system is still committed to delivering the best in difficult circumstances.
To help citizens during the shutdown, the police have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Some have distributed food and milk packages, including older adults. Food rations were distributed on police trucks in Punjab. Police went door to door offering help to the elderly in West Bengal. They distributed food packages in shelters for women and workers. Some have even tried innovative ways to spread the word about precautions and security measures to contain the coronavirus, wearing red helmets with virus-shaped spikes. Some police in the states sang patriotic songs, calling on citizens to support the nation in its fight against the coronavirus. These efforts of the police force in this hour of crisis should not go unnoticed.
Considering the amazing population, the police cannot comply without the help and participation of the community. For example, after the first day’s efforts to distribute food to the private, the Delhi police received overwhelming support from residents who offered to offer vegetables and other food. The Delhi Police Special Branch distributed around 6,000 food packages to those in need in various parts of the Capital in collaboration with volunteers and staff from its district units, according to media reports. In the southern district, the police, in coordination with a private trust and the district civil administration, distributed 500 food packages to those in need in Sanjay Colony Bhatti Mines. From serving meals at police stations to providing medical assistance, the Delhi Police together with NGOs reached out to people in distress due to confinement in the slums. Some self-help groups have also come forward to carry the cane. Similarly, some states are implementing innovative ideas for social distancing with panchayats and the police working together.
The police force, as one of the sentinels of democracy, should be applauded and encouraged for being a crucial interface between the government and the public in this time of national emergency. However, there are three lessons for the future. First, police training schools must include medical emergencies and police responses in their curriculum, which would require a paradigm shift in protocols and accessories.
Second, with the police force stretched to the maximum, there is a great need to train and train private security guards.
When the shutdown was imposed, police officers were seen walking through the parks with megaphones, sensitizing crowds to Covid-19, a job security guards could have done. In fact, a variety of tasks performed by the police today can be performed by private guards under supervision.
Finally, communities or groups that organize themselves well through self-discipline emerge from such unscathed and stronger crises. Some resident welfare associations in Delhi and Gurgaon have already demonstrated this, although it is crucial that they comply with the law, do not act arbitrarily, impose draconian restrictions and harass members of the community.
Yashovardhan Azad is a former IPS official and central information commissioner
The opinions expressed are personal.