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Coronavirus: India Needs Trust Building Between Police and Communities

Police violence during the ongoing lockdown in India is dangerously undermining India’s fight against the coronavirus. Liberia’s experience with Ebola shows that community involvement is as important as the role of emergency services during a pandemic.

India has so far tried to contain the coronavirus pandemic through a 21-day lockdown and a fiscal stimulus package. The 21-day lockdown is an effective quarantine of 1.3 billion people, making it one of the largest isolation efforts in the world. So far, these efforts seem to have paid off, with the country reporting only 819 active cases with 19 deaths as of 28 March. While the hope remains that the steps taken will continue to fetch the desired outcomes, there’s a long road ahead for India to prevent this crisis from becoming a public health catastrophe.

In the battle against any pandemic, emergency services such as the healthcare system, public sanitation and the police form the first line of defence. Hence, in order to safeguard a community from calamitous harm, a healthy level of trust between the emergency services and the community is essential.

Given the unprecedented threat that India faces from COVID-19, the role of the police in enforcing the lockdown and enabling social distancing is crucial. Given that India is one of the world’s most densely populated countries, it will not be easy either.

But recent reports of police violence in enforcing the lockdown are only going to create distrust towards public authorities. Social media is rife with videos of policemen getting violent with citizens, raining down sticks to impose the 21-day lockdown, and even smashing their property. While such action by the police has drawn criticism from citizens, and even top police officials, such acts of violence continue unabated to a large degree. There have also been cases of the police beating a man to death for violating the lockdown and beating lady doctors who left their homes to work on the frontlines of the pandemic.

During any pandemic, community involvement is as important as the role of emergency services themselves in containing the spread of the disease. This is because communities can help authorities with not only amplifying their awareness efforts, but also identifying the most vulnerable and those in need of help. Communities can also help fill gaps in the government-led disaster response, as well as provide information on where the next cases can potentially arise.

Furthermore, community support is essential for contact tracing – the process of identifying people who have come in contact with the infected person and gathering subsequent contact information. This is one of the most important tools that epidemiologists use to understand and interrupt the spread of a disease – a process that involves testing, treating and educating potential patients.

But to fulfil all these roles, there needs to be a healthy level of trust between public authorities and the communities they serve. Given the recent spate of violence, especially against the poor, this trust can erode very quickly, which can paralyse government response to the crisis.

This is of particular importance in slums, where the poorest and the most downtrodden dwell in densely packed areas. Upon seeing violence from the police on the streets, community members may not be very forthcoming in declaring the presence of a patient in their midst.

In some of the country’s slums, the disease is already gaining ground, and community involvement may be the last bastion of hope to contain the coronavirus. With low standards of sanitation and hygiene, slums are one of the biggest public health hazards for the country, and the spread of the coronavirus in these areas may shoot up mortality rates.

During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, community mistrust towards foreign doctors and their own governments hampered disease response. The Liberian government took control by recruiting intermediaries to interact directly with the communities. Many of these intermediaries were part of the same communities they were helping the government reach out to.

In India, the government does not have enough resources to deploy the police in every nook and cranny of the country. Some violation of social distancing is expected and unavoidable. However, to minimise any transgressions, such community buy-in is necessary. Thus, to make community-based outreach programs effective, building trust with communities is crucial. The coronavirus crisis cannot be won by the wielding of sticks.

Furthermore, in a lockdown like the one India faces right now, the role of essential services, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and e-commerce websites is more important than ever before. A 21-day lockdown is unprecedented and fear about the unavailability of such services is widespread and justified. Thus, it is imperative for the government to dispel such fears.

However, for all of the government’s assurances, police violence sends the opposite message. Even large retailers like Flipkart had to suspend services until the police guaranteed safety and smooth passage for their supply chain and workers. For the mom-and-pop stores on which a large number of Indians depend, the threat of the police shutting down their operations – or harassing their customers – can spell doom.

The police’s role in a modern state is of much importance – and with the police serving as the face of government authority, a nuanced approach will make a great difference in the country’s effort to tackle the coronavirus. To do this, two components are extremely critical: One, the top brass of the police establishment should understand that traditional ways of maintaining a lockdown will do more harm than good. The police must recognize that the community is a partner and not an enemy in the current lockdown. Two, frontline police officers should be sensitized against violence.

It is important for the state machinery and the citizenry to come together and work as one cohesive unit rather than have standoffs while a virus lurks around silently.

Vistrit Choudhary is a student of Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. He is also the Clinton Global Fellow working in the field of access to healthcare. A former consultant for a consulting major, Vistrit is interested in exploring the art of the possible at the intersections of technology, healthcare and policy.