Policing lockdowns

May 31, 2020

Ensuring compliance with lockdown restrictions is becoming increasingly difficult for authorities


hile the government has hinted at re-imposing stiff lockdown restrictions following what it has described as large-scale flouting of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) prescribed in view of the pandemic situation while easing the lockdown in place since March, local administrations and police appear unsure about what is doable and how to go about it.

The prime minister’s special assistant on health, Dr Zafar Mirza, has warned that strict lockdown restrictions may be re-imposed if the numbers of new coronavirus cases and deaths keep going up. Speaking to the media in Islamabad, Mirza has said that continued ‘negligence’ in the enforcement of the SOPs could further aggravate the situation.

With over 60,000 people infected in the country with the virus so far, the magnitude of the problem continues to increase with each passing day.

“It is as if we are going around in circles. The violations of SOPs during the relaxing of the lockdown are just the tip of the iceberg,” says a senior police officer, requesting anonymity since he is not authorised to speak to the media on the issue. The problem, he says, is not as simple as many think. “It is a very complex and an extremely difficult situation. The authorities have to understand that the people of Pakistan are in dire straits as the national economy has come to a grinding halt, thanks to the two-month-long lockdown,” he adds. “It does not look as if the situation will improve anytime soon. Unemployment and hunger loom large.”

Under the circumstances, he says, if the administration tries to force the people to abide by a stricter lockdown, the law and order problem might develop into a full-fledge crisis. “The starved people might resort to civil disobedience. We are in a fix about how to proceed to ensure compliance with a stricter lockdown and the SOPs at mosques, markets, public transport stations and other public places.”

Javed Iqbal, the Abbottabad DPO, says that in his district the police have adopted a multipronged strategy to cope with the situation. “On one hand, we made sure, mostly through community policing, that people in Abbottabad follow the SOPs like wearing masks and maintaining social distance. On the other, we kept large shopping malls, dine-in restaurants, educational institutions, hotels, marquees, wedding halls and cinemas closed.” Moreover, he says, public processions, congregations of all kinds, organised sports events, and concerts were prohibited even during relaxing of the lockdown.

The DPO agrees with the idea that before deciding on any strategy, the administration should keep in mind its financial as well as the social impact.

“It has become quite difficult for the administration to keep people indoors. We will have to be more careful while dealing with such a situation” says Javed Iqbal, the Abbottabad DPO.

“Earlier, the lockdown had a negative impact on daily wagers alone, but now its scope is broader and it is also affecting the white-collared. One can safely say that a majority of the population has now been hit so hard by the acute financial crisis that they find it extremely difficult to make ends meet,” says Iqbal.

“In such volatile conditions, it is quite difficult for the administration to keep people indoors. We will have to be more careful while dealing violations” he says.

Tariq Masood Farooq, the Punjab Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) director, says it will take at least 15 days after Eid holidays to gauge the impact of easing the lockdown. “And, if we see that the number of coronavirus patients has increased significantly, a harsher as well as a stricter lockdown will be enforced. We are closely monitoring the situation,” says Masood.

He says that it was observed that the movement and interaction of people increased during Eid holidays and the SOPs were not properly followed.

“Many Pakistanis are under the false impression that the prevalence of the disease is declining. We don’t know when this virus will end,” says the PDMA director.

Afzal Mehmood Butt, the Gilgit Baltistan DIG (Establishment), is of the view that the decision to impose a stricter lockdown after Eid holidays requires thorough reflection by the government. He warns that a hasty decision could have serious repercussions. Nonetheless, he says, once the decision is taken, the police in Gilgit Baltistan will ensure its enforcement. “Gilgit Baltistan is a tourist destination and not a densely populated area, the job of maintaining law and order and ensuring that the SOPs are followed has not been very challenging for us,” says the DIG.

“During the easing of the lockdown, we did not allow any tourist to enter the area. Only GB residents were permitted to enter or exit the area,” he says.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at  [email protected]

Policing coronavirus lockdowns: Ensuring compliance with restrictions is becoming increasingly difficult for authorities