Starting midnight of March 22, an eerie calm descended upon Karachi, whose streets are usually bustling with traffic at all hours.
Around 30,000 police personnel, aided by Pakistan Rangers Sindh and Pakistan Army personnel, set up check posts across the city to ensure the government’s directives were followed that residents remain in their homes.
They were confronted by an enemy they couldn't see or understood little about, asked to keep anywhere north of 16 million citizens inside their homes. But most importantly, they found themselves on the frontlines without the proper weapons — in this case, personal protective equipment.
“No medical expert explained to us on how to deal with the situation,” lamented one police officer, S*, speaking to Dawn on condition of anonymity. “We are asked to salute doctors and hail them for their services, but what about us?”
“Doctors are doing a heroic job, but they work in a controlled environment, whereas we are in the streets, stopping and speaking with every citizen who arrives at the check post without any protection,” he said angrily. “We could all be carriers by now and we go back to our families at the end of our shift.”
When the first case of coronavirus emerged in Karachi on February 26, the provincial government swung into action, immediately ordering the closure of schools the next day.
The move was aimed at curbing the spread of the novel coronavirus, explained the Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah.
Global health authorities had established earlier in January that the virus spread via human to human transmission, so the chief minister’s decision was in line with the directives issued by health experts.
The next few days, however, residents flocked to parks and recreational places, children in tow, defeating the very purpose of the schools’ closure.
The chief minister, taking notice, thundered at a press conference: “I order schools shut and ask you to stay home and half of Karachi ends up at Sea View.”
On March 22, the Sindh government finally announced that the province was going into lockdown. Police were ordered into the streets and directed to "politely but firmly" ask people to stay home.
Since then, at least one official of the Karachi Police has tested positive for the coronavirus. And with at least 782 of the province’s 1,128 cases having been transmitted locally, community spread is a major concern expressed by both health experts and the authorities.
When Karachi Police chief AIG Ghulam Nabi Memon was asked whether any training sessions were conducted for police personnel, he said there had been “no dedicated training, but we have learnt through media the required precautions”.
AIG Memon, however, disputed Officer S’s account that there were no PPEs provided to the police. When pressed on the details, AIG Memon said that a total of 182 protective suits had been distributed among police personnel.
How the 182 suits would be divided among the 30,000-strong force is unclear.
For his part, Atif Vighio, the Sindh health department's public relations officer, believes the issue could have been controlled better had the public listened to the government's directives. "When the government issued the lockdown orders, we hoped people would listen for their own sake," he said. "But they don't seem to understand and have made the police vulnerable too."
Vighio added that the health department had issued an advisory to the police department, which contained details about the necessary protocols to be adopted.
Despite repeated attempts, Sindh government's spokesperson Murtaza Wahab was not available for comment.
“Imagine if one of the personnel in my police station were to get infected,” continued S. “We travel in the same cars, the weapons change hands at least twice a day each time the shift changes, we handle the barriers set up at the pickets […] everyone is at risk,” he said.
While the provincial government and the Centre have been stressing on the need for better hygiene and TVs have been constantly blaring the need to wash hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day, there has been no provision to disinfect equipment or vehicles in use by the police.
“The whole city is under lockdown, but police stations are open. Anybody can walk in. And yet, there are no preventive measures put in place,” S added.
Quizzed about this issue, AIG Memon admitted “this is a big challenge”. He added, however, that they had “now got disinfectant spray machines for which we have deputed personnel”.
When asked about the numbers, the city police chief said they had acquired four machines, all of them in the South zone. There are two other zones in Karachi, besides the traffic wing.
A mixed bag
On the ground, interviews with various police personnel revealed different scenarios, depending on the police station they belonged to. None of the personnel in the streets were ready to give on-the-record interviews for fear of retaliation.
In South zone, at least two personnel deployed at check posts in the jurisdictions of different police stations said they were being provided a mask, a pair of gloves and a small bottle of hand sanitiser, the last to be shared by the contingent every day. Two others from other police stations denied this was the case.
In East zone, a police personnel standing at a roundabout manning a check post said he hadn't received any such supply. “We haven’t received anything,” he said summarily, refusing to speak further. He also refused to give his name.
“My biggest fear is: even if 10 per cent of the force were to get infected, we could become carriers and transmit this to citizens who we stop and frisk every day,” said S. “How will we stop this pandemic then?”
The only solution, according to S, is to provide police personnel with PPE. “Otherwise, this whole exercise of a lockdown will be pointless,” he warned.
Additional reporting by Imtiaz Ali.
All photos by author.