MUMBAI (Reuters) – Hundreds of Indian police have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days, raising alarm among an over-stretched force as it attempts to enforce the world’s largest lockdown to contain the pandemic.
Some 3 million police are trying to ensure that the vast majority of India’s 1.3 billion people stay home. TV footage early in the crisis showed police beating back migrant workers as they tried to board city buses to reach their villages, making a mockery of social distancing.
India has been under lockdown since March 25 and confirmed nearly 50,000 coronavirus cases and some 1,694 deaths.
A senior officer in the western state of Maharashtra said the number of cases had nearly doubled in the police force there in the last week. Maharashtra, the hardest-hit state, has reported a total of 15,525 infections as of Tuesday.
“More than 450 people from the state police force have now tested positive and four have died due to the virus,” the officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Control rooms were being set up exclusively to deal with health issues faced by police in Maharashtra, according to the state’s home minister, Anil Deshmukh.
Police fired tear gas at a crowd of protesting migrant workers in the neighbouring state of Gujarat this week and launched baton charges against hundreds queuing at liquor stores in New Delhi, even as the first steps were being taken by state authorities to relax the lockdown to revive the economy.
Last month, doctors had to re-attach the severed hand of a policeman who was assaulted while trying to enforce the lockdown in the northern state of Punjab.
CLAMOUR FOR SICK LEAVE
Six senior police officers in at least six states said dozens of police in their jurisdictions were seeking sick leave, fearing that they will otherwise become infected.
An official with India’s Home Ministry said it was aware of the matter and monitoring the situation.
“Patrolling and crowd control in COVID-19-affected areas is becoming more dangerous than fighting criminals,” said Salunkhe, a Mumbai policeman who agreed to be quoted using his last name. “At least in those cases we can see the enemy.”
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat, at least 155 police officers and some paramilitary personnel have been infected, according to a senior official.
The police commissioner of the state’s main city, Ahmedabad, told Reuters that 95 police and paramilitary members had been hospitalized with COVID-19.
The city ordered all shops, except those providing milk and medicines, to close from midnight Wednesday until May 15, implementing a stricter lockdown than the national one in place since March 25, in an effort to curb the spike in infections.
Ahmedabad accounts for more than two-thirds of coronavirus cases in Gujarat and about three quarters of its deaths, according to government data.
Five more companies of paramilitary forces will be deployed to further tighten security in the containment zones in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s highest-ranking police official said. Three companies were already in place, he said.
A senior federal home ministry official said he feared that thousands more police could test positive and spread the virus among their families in police housing.
(Additional reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad and Rupam Jain in Mumbai; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mark Heinrich)