Policing a pandemic

Published August 22, 2020
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.
The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

THE outbreak of the pandemic has assigned a new role to Pakistan’s police. Besides crime prevention, detection and counterterrorism, police are now also expected to work in public health. In a country where the police are trained on colonial traditions, reactive to situations, strapped for resources and policing is considered a non-development affair, can it transform into a true public service?

Historically, public health remained exclu­ded from policing in Pakistan. However, anti-polio and dengue campaigns established inf­or­mal institutional linkages between health and police departments. The Epidemic Dise­ases Act (EDA), 1958, was an outdated law pri­marily based on the 1897 act. Prevention of infectious diseases was included in the Con­stitution’s Concurrent List, which was abolished in 2010. Sindh adopted the EDA in 2014. To control the spread of Covid-19, in May 2020, the act was amended and the fine inc­reased from Rs3,000 to maximum Rs1 million.

In KP, the Public Health (Surveillance and Response) Act was passed in 2017. It mandates an 18-member committee that lacks police representation. The committee is empowered to declare a health emergency but, realistically, except for police, no department has the enforcement capacity to deal with this. Reporting of health hazards is made mandatory, but such obligations need public empowerment. And though the law guarantees “the highest standards of human respect, dignity and privacy”, owing to the weak capacity of its enforcers, such ideals are often compromised.

Public health remained excluded from policing in Pakistan.

To deal with Covid-19, KP promulgated an ordinance detailing restrictions on people and establishments, procedures to deal with a potentially infectious person (PIP), and trying violators summarily. It also covers issues re­lated to education institutions, tenants/lan­d­lords, handling and burial of the deceased, and dealing with quarantine runaways.

Meanwhile, Punjab promulgated an ordinance, repealing the EDA, 1958. The law makes it binding upon individuals to share information with certified doctors regarding a PIP.

Common violations are failing to maintain social distancing and wear masks at places of worship, businesses, and public transport. In Pakistan, 9,532 violations of health guidelines were reported in a single day: 4,479 in KP; 2,445 in Punjab; 1,000 in Sindh; 818 in Bal­ochistan; 585 in AJK; 156 in GB; and 49 in ICT.

For police, dealing with the homeless and refugees during lockdown is a daunting task. Increasing criminalisation during a pandemic did not prove effective. Globally, social distancing laws have failed to achieve results. Effective communication strategies by LEAs, volunteerism and community consent may yield more dividends. It is also important to recognise that privileged classes can observe social distancing more easily than others, and that the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities and compounded law enforcement.

In dealing with violations, imprisonment increases the risk of the virus spreading in overcrowded prisons, and heavy fines are also not viable given current economic constraints. Better then to focus on public education, using the four ‘e’s approach: engage people, explain the law and its rationale, encourage compliance, and enforce only as a last resort.

We have to strive for a balance between the right to life and right to movement. In developed countries, there is public debate on the impact of increased police powers on human liberties. In Canada, for example, the Policing the Pandemic Mapping Project found that these enhanced powers were hurting, not helping, the public. In Pakistan, owing to dysfunctional public safety commissions, such scrutiny is lacking.

During emergencies, weak police community links and dysfunctional local governments make maintaining order even more difficult. Emergency laws made without thorough deliberation, weak professional capacity, lack of additional funds and little public ownership further hinder enforcement.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the im­p­­ortance of community policing. Police must adopt both inward and outward strategies. Given the lack of understanding of public health issues, police primarily focus on an outward strategy, thus policing without protective gear and procedures. Such a grave sit­u­a­tion warrants that in dealing with arr­ests, investigation, accidents, protests, handling dead bodies and funerals, SOPs are drafted and implemented as per WHO guidelines. Public health approaches need to be included in the police training curriculum, and provincial governments need to allocate non-lapsable funds to police departments. After the pan­demic, the efficacy of such laws should be reviewed and issues arising out of its implementation studied. It is an opportunity to think about how to shift from a punitive, reactive form of policing to enforcement with consent.

The writer is the author of Pakistan: In Between Extremism and Peace.

Twitter: @alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2020

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