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Policing COVID-19

The statement by Zambia Police spokesperson Esther Mwaata Katongo that people found in bars or drinking places during the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak will be whipped is shocking.

What law allows police to whip anyone found breaking the law? None. This is lawlessness. It’s actually criminal conduct for which a police officer can be prosecuted. They are taking the law into their own hands.
The truth is the police has done this for a very long time without being seriously challenged and they now think or believe it is the normal way to conduct themselves.

This is a civil rights violation. And it is not limited to physical violence; it also includes verbal abuse.
Many people have been viciously beaten by police in Zambia.

If police officers can behave this way what can one expect from the soldiers they deployed to do police work during this period? Armed-forces personnel are trained to “engage and destroy,” peace officers “to protect and to serve.” Expecting soldiers to play both roles is expecting too much.

Yet in many instances, our leaders then ask these trained warriors to serve as police officers, a job that involves entirely different expectations and holds them to a different standard.

Employing the military to supplement civil law enforcement can be risky. Law enforcement and the armed forces are distinct security organs with different roles, rules, and training. Despite this, the two are often used jointly, and the line between them is not always clear. When the armed forces take on a law enforcement role, especially in a domestic setting, it is important to remember that the military does not have the same training and experience as police, and should be kept to a support and logistical role that reinforces law enforcement officers but does not supplant them. This allows armed forces to contribute to overall capabilities while minimising the risk that friction will occur between civilians and soldiers.

There is a sketch doing the rounds on Twitter: Two people standing in the centre of a hallway, back towards one another, each struggling to push a different door closed. On the right, a health worker in a hazmat suit closes the door on the coronavirus, while on the left a police officer in a medical mask pushes back a horde of people.

The romanticised implication is that in the space between COVID-19 and its potential victims, it is medics and security services who push back together to save lives.

A similar theory is at the root of the growing trend where the military and police enforce government lockdowns to contain the spread of coronavirus. But the reality is not as picture-perfect.

As the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to shift fast it is clear that our best bet to limit the impact is prevention. And we have to use whatever means available to us to try and control the pandemic.
For now, the solution appears to be isolation, quarantine and lockdown.

And we have deployed police officers and the soldiers to enforce this.

For many of our people the deployment of soldiers means trouble.

So far, many have been beaten for flouting isolation regulations; for failure to observe the order.
Although, to its credit, the government is also communicating with citizens regularly, the use of force has not helped build trust.

We cannot pretend that soldiers have a good reputation if they have beaten people in the past.

While it is true that we are dealing with an unprecedented pandemic in COVID-19, this is also not the first time we are dealing with a disease outbreak. And we must not forget the lessons from past pandemics.

Building the confidence and trust of those affected and those at risk is inextricably intertwined with a public health approach. If we expect people to voluntarily come out when they have symptoms of COVID-19, and to expose their travel history for contact tracing – this can only work where the community is an ally in the control of the pandemic, and not a source of a problem whose solution is a lockdown.

As the WHO chief, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, explained, lockdowns and movement restrictions only buy us time by slowing the pandemic, but they are only useful if accompanied by rigorous testing, contact tracing and isolation of those infected. At this stage, the security forces can be repurposed as a useful asset for us who have to throw the kitchen sink at the pandemic. But this repurposing cannot be separated from a public health approach that puts people at the centre of the response.

We must act fast. Or the window of opportunity may soon evade us.

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