May you live in interesting times. Though this oft-repeated English expression is perhaps wrongly attributed to the Chinese, these are certainly interesting times — with a controversial Chinese connection. At the time of writing, the COVID-19 virus, widely believed to have originated in China, has infected more than 7,75,000 people across the world and killed more than 37,000. In India, it has mercifully had a slow start, with more than 1,600 infections and less than 50 casualties till April 2, despite the first case being detected two months ago on January 30.
Quite rightly, the government of India has paid heed to the devastation abroad, and imposed a 21-day lockdown across the country beginning March 23. Nothing of this scale has ever been attempted in human history. In the second week of the lockdown, it is hard to predict its effect on arresting the impact of the COVID-19 by April 14. For all those entrusted with enforcing the lockdown, and catering to the infected patients, the next two weeks are sure to stretch and challenge us in unimaginable ways. There was never a scarier time to be in uniform. There was never a more inspiring time to be in uniform.
Today, the health and well being of our 1.3 billion citizens literally depend on how well we in the police forces work with our colleagues in healthcare, civil administration and other essential services to ensure that this lockdown achieves its intended goal. Namely, to arrest the rate of transmission, and the number of infections and keep the number of casualties to the minimum possible till April 14. These are truly morbid parameters to judge the performance of any state agency. Interesting times, indeed.
The experience of the last one week has been a steep learning curve for all of us, apart from also being a deeply stressful and humbling experience. To take credit for anything at this stage would be sheer hubris. It is largely the support and cooperation that we have received from our citizens in enforcing this lockdown that has got us this far. True, there have been stray instances of reckless non-compliance with lockdown guidelines. Equally, there have been more than a few instances of high-handedness by the police. But, by and large, the lockdown has become a reality for 1.3 billion Indians. Not by force, but primarily by consent.
Frankly, nothing in our training and our practical experience as police officers has prepared us for a task of this magnitude. How do you begin to protect others, when the air you breathe, the hands you shake, the loved ones you hug, all become a potentially lethal source of infection for yourself? And vice versa, how do we know that we aren’t already infected, and instead of helping, we are in fact harming all those who come into proximity seeking our help? The psychological impact of the virus is as insidious as its biological impact. We are having to learn completely alien tactics and protocols on the fly. Every day brings new challenges, new heartbreaks and new acts of inspiration.
The lockdown has, of course, eased some of the daily challenges of policing India. Crime is down, of course. As are daily challenges of law and order. But these have been replaced by larger challenges. Ensuring that our citizens stay indoors as required is the biggest task. No less difficult is ensuring the uninterrupted supplies of a host of essential services. Add to that the task of tracing the contacts of all positive cases and ensuring that they observe strict quarantine guidelines. However, all these have been dwarfed by the migration of over 10 million citizens, largely from the cow belt, most of whom worked as daily wage labour across most of our major cities and states. The recent acts of the Tablighi Jamaat that have fed a new wave of infections across the country are a grim reminder of the challenges we face.
Our police forces have seldom enjoyed high levels of trust and support from civil society – largely due to our own failings. However, now is not the time to remind us of all these things. It is the time to appreciate that even though the COVID-19 can’t tell a uniformed Indian from a civilian, we are not turning our backs on what is expected of us. We want you to trust us to do the right thing. We will not hesitate to repeatedly expose ourselves to this sinister menace, if it can ensure your safety. We will ensure that the elderly and the sick receive due assistance. We will ensure that there are no shortages of critical items of food and medicines.
However, we can’t do it alone. We require unprecedented levels of forbearance, trust and support from our citizens. We require them to listen and follow instructions. We require them to stop hoarding essential items. We require them to stop spreading rumours, because the fear and panic they create will be as deadly as the virus. We require them to stop seeking frivolous exemptions from the lockdown. We require them to put on hold the many murderous faultlines of religion, region and caste. We require elite segments of our society in business and industry to work in close partnership with us to ensure that wherever there are gaps in our capabilities, they step up to shoulder some of our responsibilities.
This virus is deadly and infectious enough. We don’t need to add to its lethal prowess by holding onto our past legacy of mutual distrust. For all the threat it represents, this epidemic is also an opportunity for police forces in India to redeem themselves in the eyes of their fellow citizens by exemplary standards of courage, professionalism and service. You have cheered enough for men wearing khaki on celluloid. We want to earn your applause this time. This lockdown is only the beginning of a long struggle. There will be many unknown challenges that will surely follow.
Despite our best efforts to protect our men and women in uniform from getting infected by the virus, it would be foolish to expect that none of us will fall ill doing our duty, or even worse. We will do all we can for those unfortunate colleagues, even as we will soldier on. This epidemic is an hour of collective reckoning and we can only survive it by coming together. Even if some of us fall by the wayside, we will not let you down.
This article first appeared in print edition on April 3 under the title “Policing a lockdown”. The writer is a serving IPS officer. Views are personal.