Adil, 19, and his friend were riding their scooters in Brussels when they encountered police officers on patrol. The officers were monitoring compliance with a lockdown Belgium had imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Adil’s friend sped off in one direction, Adil in another. A police car called in as reinforcement collided with Adil’s scooter, killing him instantly.
Adil is sadly one of a growing number of people who have died, not from the coronavirus itself, but as a consequence of police enforcement of outbreak-related restrictions.
I have been tracking police abuses and the misuse of emergency powers during the pandemic as part of the online monitoring project COVID State Watch. As lockdowns ease in some parts of the world, this other coronavirus death toll demands greater attention.
Police officers have harassed, abused, beaten and killed people in their efforts to enforce coronavirus-related curfews and lockdowns on nearly every continent.
Almost three weeks into the lockdown in Nigeria, more people had died at the hands of police enforcing coronavirus restrictions than from the virus itself. Videos of Indian police officers forcing migrant workers to hop and crawl along a road and attacking street vendors went viral. In the US, a group of seven police officers violently dragged a man off a bus for failing to wear a face mask. In France, the police came under fire for tasering a man standing outside his home for allegedly violating harsh lockdown requirements.
The extent of police violence unleashed under the pandemic is so vast that it prompted a statement this week from UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, denouncing the use of “excessive, and at times lethal, force to make people abide by lockdowns and curfews”.
“Shooting, detaining or abusing someone for breaking a curfew because they are desperately searching for food is clearly an unacceptable and unlawful response,” she added.
Just like the virus itself, enforcement of coronavirus restrictions is hitting marginalised groups the hardest. In Greece, asylum seekers and refugees have been violently assaulted by police monitoring a coronavirus lockdown. In Australia, public health infringement notices have been disproportionately issued in areas of Sydney with large immigrant and Indigenous populations.
A similar pattern has emerged in areas of France with large immigrant populations. Bolivian soldiers violently pushed back a group of mostly poor and Indigenous Bolivians trying to re-enter the country from Chile, citing the need to contain the pandemic. In South Africa, low-income neighbourhoods and townships bear the brunt of police and army brutality.
Heavy-handed policing of marginalised groups in the name of containing the pandemic comes as no surprise. Those who are routinely over-policed are naturally the first victims of any expansion of police power. This pattern is reinforced by the nature of coronavirus restrictions.
“Essential workers”, day labourers, street vendors – those who cannot afford to confine themselves to their homes – or those who live in crowded housing are more likely to be outside and subject to police checks. They are also more likely to be poor, minority ethnic, Indigenous or of other marginalised backgrounds. Police powers that are broad and vaguely worded encourage officers to use their own discretion, only exacerbating this problem.
The deadly, and often discriminatory, impact of coronavirus policing is probably much greater than we currently think. Through the COVID State Watch project, we have encountered hundreds of cases of ill-treatment and misconduct by police enforcing coronavirus restrictions.
But journalists, activists and NGOs only succeed in documenting a small fraction of cases of police abuse, even in the absence of the difficulties presented by the lockdown. Very few victims make official complaints and formal channels of information-gathering, such as freedom of information requests, face delays and obstruction due to the lockdown.
We only know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to police brutality and misconduct during the pandemic – but even this is enough to demand a rethink of the “law and order” approach to dealing with public health emergencies.
Police and army officers do not become qualified health workers through the signing of an emergency decree. At a day-to-day level, policing of coronavirus restrictions has been characterised by a lack of social distancing by officers and confusion regarding the rules themselves. Those arrested for violating coronavirus rules are often detained in cramped and unsanitary conditions which only encourage the spread of the virus.
At a broader level, the experience of policing under the pandemic demonstrates the dangers of criminalisation and expanded police power as a response to crises. Criminalising an activity or behaviour does not stop it – it merely adds to the list of behaviours that warrant police intervention. Criminalisation is a common knee-jerk reaction to societal harms by politicians who lack the imagination or courage to explore alternatives.
Alternatives do exist. States could employ community health officials to monitor compliance with lockdowns and provide them with resources to help those who are outside because they are homeless or do not understand social distancing rules. Greater and earlier investment in public education about social distancing could lessen the need for enforcement.
Financial support to ensure no one is forced outside to work out of poverty or hunger is another crucial step. A low level of non-compliance may persist, but its impact on the spread of the pandemic must be weighed against the detrimental effects of over-zealous policing itself – both in terms of spreading the virus and the violence and ill-treatment suffered by already over-policed groups.
As incidents like the death of 19-year-old Adil demonstrate, giving police greater powers can have devastating and deadly consequences, above and beyond the terrible toll of the virus itself.