Are police going too far in response to Covid-19 pandemic?

April 15, 2020

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Arjan Arenas on what we should and shouldn’t be doing during the crisis

A deadly virus is spreading across the globe and has already killed over a hundred thousand people. Governments were advising – and are now ordering – citizens to stay in their homes. Pubs, clubs and restaurants have been shut down. The police are patrolling the streets and parks, forcibly dispersing gatherings. They’ve resorted to the most extreme measures to discourage anyone from going outside for any reason they think is unnecessary, shaming those who do venture into open spaces. People have started informing on their neighbours who go out for a second walk, encouraged by the authorities.

I could easily be describing the plot of a dystopian sci-fi movie, but of course, this is Britain in 2020, hit by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. This is an incredibly worrying time for people across the country and the world, particularly young people who’ve had their GCSE and A-Level exams cancelled and are understandably anxious about their future.

We’re living through a momentous period in human history. We’re experiencing something which is unknown to living memory. Although pandemics are nothing new, the one which is most comparable to the Covid-19 crisis took place over a century ago. It was the Spanish flu outbreak, which spread across different countries in 1918, beginning several months before the end of World War I, and killed around 50 million people – or, to put things into perspective, roughly 1% of the world’s population at the time. Not since then has any disease had such an unprecedented impact on everyday life on such a massive scale.

Emergency hospital ward during Spanish flu outbreak of 1918

Today, we have the medicine and technology to ensure that the death toll from coronavirus doesn’t exceed that from the Spanish flu, so naturally, doctors are doing their utmost to encourage people to stay indoors and reduce infection.

It’s frustrating that plenty of people are ignoring the advice of experts and the government by flocking to parks and other public spaces, putting themselves and others at grave risk. The police have been tasked with making sure that people follow government guidelines, but while it is extremely important that coronavirus is taken seriously, I feel that law enforcement measures have recently been overstepping the mark a bit.

While the police are right to ward off large gatherings outdoors for non-essential reasons, harassing sunbathers who are observing social distancing rules seems a little extreme. Worse still is the idea that the crackdown on sunbathers might lead to going out for exercise being banned, which will hit those who don’t have gardens to exercise in particularly hard.

There have been some creative efforts to encourage people to stay in (like the prankster near Whitby who sent a Dalek round shouting “Self-isolate!”), but the police’s attempts to do so again seem to have taken things too far, most notoriously when police in Derbyshire dyed the popular Blue Lagoon beauty spot black to discourage tourists from visiting.

The overwhelming majority of young people are sensible enough to know that social distancing is necessary

On social media, there has been specific backlash against police in Cambridgeshire who joked about making sure that customers at a local Tesco didn’t buy any non-essential items. What’s especially disturbing are people who’ve been calling 999 on their neighbours who they suspect of inviting people round. This informing has been encouraged by the police.

Some police officers have defended these measures by arguing that similar efforts by the Italian police have been the major factor in a significant drop in coronavirus cases in the country; one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. This may be true but, according to media reports in Italy, such measures have also severely damaged the Italian public’s trust in their police force. We really don’t need that over here, where confidence in the police, especially among young people, is already relatively low.

The overwhelming majority of young people are sensible enough to know that social distancing is necessary if we’re going to turn the tide on Covid-19. What we need right now in these unsettling times is reassurance from our communities, including the police, that we can get through this. It’s hard to strike the perfect balance between the public taking it seriously and the police not interfering, but we need to reach a point where we don’t need this level of intrusion – especially when it’s taking the police away from tackling more serious crime.

Arjan Arenas studied history at King’s College London, then completed a master’s in the history of international relations at the London School of Economics. He has worked with Exposure since January 2018, and is particularly interested in history and politics, as well as books, film and television. Outside of his work with Exposure, Arjan has written reviews of films and television programmes, as well as theatre productions in London’s West End.

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