The death of a police officer in a hospital in Kottayam, Ajithan, 54, from complications caused by COVID-19 early Saturday has sent alarm bells ringing in the State law enforcement.
The development has prompted State Police Chief Loknath Behera to order police officers above the age of 50 off the field. He has re-assigned officers in the vulnerable age group for station duty to lessen their chance of exposure to the disease.
An initial report indicated that the Special Branch officer stationed in Idukki had contracted the infection from his wife. However, his death has spotlighted the risk of coronavirus infection faced by police officers who often worked in close proximity with each other and the public.
Mr Behera has also ordered officers with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma and cardiac ailment off the field irrespective of their age. Immunocompromised officers under treatment for other diseases should not report for duty and could work from home if required.
As of Thursday, as many as 95 police officers had tested positive for COVID-19, including the personal security officer of Deputy Speaker V. Sasi. Many more officers were under preventive quarantine.
An official said even emergency responders cooped up in crowded and air-conditioned control rooms wherein multiple persons work the same set of telephones round-the-clock also faced a high level of infection risk.
Though there is no reliable estimate of the impact of demonstrations on police officers, many officials felt that the spate of anti-government agitations last month had drastically increased the possibility of law enforcers contracting the disease.
Many police officers had exposed themselves to the risk of contagion while removing protestors from the road, herding them into crowded police buses and processing them at nearby station houses.
A senior official said the breach of social distancing norms on a large scale as witnessed at political protests, funerals, weddings, prayer meetings and supermarkets was perilous to police functioning in the long run.
If the public did not observe the COVID-19 transmission risk mitigation protocol endorsed by the World Health Organisation, the coronavirus could incrementally whittle down the number of officers available for law and order duty in Kerala, he said.
District Police Chiefs have repeatedly organised webinars and online classes to sensitise police officers to the risk they faced while enforcing the law in pandemic hotspots, including densely populated coastal localities. They have alerted officers to the potential hazard they posed to their families when returning home after COVID-19 duty.
The department was also reorienting enforcers to tackle potentially volatile situations, such as crowding in coastal localities, with tact and techniques of community policing.
The pandemic has necessitated a different approach to law enforcement. The strategy was to prevent the public from reacting in a hostile manner to police directions, he said.