When Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced a decision to entrust police with the task of prevention of Covid, that raised eyebrows – as much as surprise – across several quarters, including those who had stood wholeheartedly behind the chief minister. As per the order issued by the state Chief Secretary, the police was assigned several additional tasks like demarcating containment zones, checking entry into those zones, monitoring quarantined individuals, preparing contact list of patients and ensuring physical distance in public places. With this , the task of preparing the list of those who had contacts with Covid patients – which had until then been performed by health workers under a Health Inspector – became the responsibility of a police team under Sub-Inspector. As a prompt follow up, the police authorities, using typical police methods, sent a letter to telecom providers to hand over phone data within 24 hours for ascertaining who all made contacts with Covid patients. Many of the telephone companies showed reluctance to provide the call data, fearing it would infringe the protection of constitutionally guaranteed individual privacy. However, at a high-level meeting, state police chief Lokanath Behera issued a strict order to collect the CDR (call data record) of the patients. He also entrusted Intelligence ADGP with the task of ensuring that the documents were obtained in time. The chief minister has fully endorsed the practice of police verifying private call records, also clarifying that this has been going on in the state for months.
It is undeniable that in the Covid prevention efforts, the police deserves as much kudos as health workers. Amidst their unstinted dedication to health security , they are exposed to both disease contraction and public displeasure alike. But the question is whether Covid prevention activities have become so complicated as to concentrate all authority in the police force to the point of violating privacy. Have health workers, social institutions and the government itself, failed completely in defending against Covid? It is true that the case burden in the state has been on a steady increase and people have started showing impermissible laxity in observing restrictions. But not even small pockets of Kerala has fallen into such a bad state as to warrant bringing the entire Covid prevention under a police raj or to adopt an attitude shown to criminals in areas of Covid-positive residents. The caution and vigilance developed over a long period cannot be slackened at any cost. But it is also incumbent on the government to observe the legally prescribed caution due from the government in such situations.
In the current situation, the desirable model to adopt is one that aids Covid prevention at the same time easing people's hardships in their daily lives. To that end, the task before the government is to prepare the population to live with Covid until vaccines are developed and become widely available for the people. The common people, already burdened with life's travails, cannot be tamed with the police wand for long. Only with the healing touch of health workers and voluntary bodies can they be geared for a life in the time of the pandemic. That is the lesson imparted by Dharavi, Mumbai too. The government should embark on a course of collective prevention efforts integrating health workers, voluntary groups and the police. Unfortunately, even the situation that has given over-riding powers to police arose because of the attempt to bring the entire preventive mission under government control, side-lining non-government organisations who had come forward whole-heartedly for the arduous task of fighting Covid.
At a different level, it is the petty bickering between the ruling front and the opposition, dictated by the campaign prospects for upcoming polls and along the agenda to that end, that weakens Covid defence. Even if it may bring temporary political gains for the parties, it will not benefit even a whit, the social life and anti-Covid measures. What Kerala needs at this juncture is a collective endeavour at different levels involving voluntary movements, the entire spectrum of socio-political outfits and civil society. There will be no two opinions about an inevitable role of the police in this matrix for controlling the overall situation. However, since we still living in a democratic set-up, the government and the larger public are equally bound to ensure that not a single patient's fundamental rights are suppressed during disease control measures. For that very reason, the government should be prepared to withdraw the over-arching authority granted to the police in Covid prevention.