Mumbai, MAHARASHTRA — In June, a team from Mumbai’s Nehru Nagar police station arrested a man for breaking into an electronics shop. Upon interrogation, he led the police to six of his accomplices.
The Nehru Nagar police station didn’t have a lock-up, so all seven suspects were held at a nearby police lockup and ferried for medical checkups and various spots across the city where their loot was stashed.
A week later when a murder suspect in the same lock-up tested positive for Covid-19, the seven member gang of suspected thieves were tested as well — five turned out to be Covid positive. And, as it turns out, so did several policemen.
Over a dozen policemen at the Nehru Nagar police station have since tested positive for Covid-19, including a senior officer who was hospitalised for 28 days. The source of the outbreak at Nehru Nagar is yet to be identified. Some policemen could have been infected by the gang of suspected thieves, while their colleagues could have picked up the infection from migrant workers who had crowded the police station during Maharashtra’s lockdown. Still others could have picked up the virus as they patrolled the streets.
At least 3,820 policemen in Mumbai have been infected by the novel coronavirus since the pandemic began, and the numbers are rising. Naval Bajaj, Mumbai’s Joint Commissioner of Police (Administration) said on average 40 policemen test positive for Covid-19 in Mumbai every day. Last month, when the pandemic in Mumbai was more severe, the force was dealing with as many as 70 new cases of infection every day.
At least 55 policemen in Mumbai have succumbed to their illness, five times more than the number of doctors who have died of Covid-19 thus far. This comparison is not to diminish the heroism of frontline health workers, but to draw attention to the plight of the police force.
As the pandemic continues to rage through Mumbai, the city police force has struggled to adapt to the moment where every routine checkpoint, arrest, or investigation can spark a spate of fresh infections.
Over a third of Mumbai’s 46,000 strong police force suffers from conditions such as high-blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, according to Dr Sanjay Kapote, who has organised health camps for the Mumbai police for over two decades. Long work hours, erratic eating times, and cramped police accommodation all play a role in the poor health of much of the force.
“We now know that these comorbidities drastically increase the fatality risk among Covid-19 patients,” said Dr. Kapote, who is the director of the Apollo Clinic in Colaba, and an honorary medical officer of the Nagpada Police Hospital.
“The police had little knowledge about the disease or importance of masks, face shields, sanitisers and physical distancing in the beginning,” Dr. Kapote said. The healthcare workers, on the other hand, braced the pandemic with some kind of training and awareness about infection control.”
Physical distance, perhaps the single most effective way of stemming the transmission of the virus, is not an option for much of the force, policemen say.
“Every time we take the accused from one place to another, we would be holding their hands so that they don’t run away. There is no way to avoid close contact,” said assistant police inspector Dinkar Pagare, the investigation officer of the Nehru Nagar case.
Pagare escaped the infection despite leading the team that arrested the gang of suspected thieves in Nehru Nagar. “However, many other policemen who had interrogated the gang tested positive,” Pagare said.
Lack of sleep, missed meals
This May, 32-year-old Assistant Police Inspector Amol Kulkarni was part of a team of policemen enforcing the lockdown in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest and most densely populated urban slums. He was also tasked with overseeing arrangements to help 25,000 migrant workers return home as the pandemic had robbed them of their livelihoods.
“He was good at solving cyber crimes. But since the lockdown, all officers were put on Covid-19 duties,” said Vilas Gangawne, senior police inspector of Shahu Nagar police station where Kulkarni was posted.
On May 10, Kulkarni was at the Shahu Nagar station when he developed a fever. Two days later, he went to the Sion Hospital where the doctors checked his oxygen saturation level, collected his samples and sent him home.
His wife, Swaranjali, an ayurveda practitioner, was quick to realise that he had classic Covid-19 symptoms.
“As his condition worsened, we began looking for a hospital bed. We checked with at least six hospitals but could not find a bed. Some said that they will not admit till we have a positive report,” Swaranjali said. “One private hospital demanded Rs 10 lakh upfront to admit him.”
Kulkarni’s test reports came in on May 16, a week after he first complained of a fever and five days after he submitted his samples. He died at home on the same day; the youngest member of the force to die of Covid-19 thus far.
His last rites were carried out by his colleagues from the Shahu Nagar police station as his wife and four-year-old daughter were admitted to the Seven Hills Hospital after testing positive.
“He was passionate about his work. He took pride in being a cop,” Swaranjali said, adding that her husband would barely sleep for five hours, often skipped meals and never got the time to exercise.
“He carried lunch from home but on most days, he would come back with an unopened tiffin box,” she said. Kulkarni had high blood sugar and was on medication which kept the levels in control.
Doctors say that improper nutrition and not getting enough sleep has a severe impact on immunity.
“Being sleep-deprived and skipping meals also make one more prone to respiratory viral infections,” said endocrinologist Dr Shashank Joshi, a member of Maharashtra’s Covid-19 task force that has been advising frontline workers to not ignore these two crucial aspects to safeguard themselves.
Naval Bajaj Joint Commissioner of Police (Administration) told HuffPost India that there wasn’t a single case in which Covid-19 positive policemen did not get hospital beds.
Long commute, crammed housing
The Mumbai police department has sought to protect their people by distributing hydroxychloroquine tablets, vitamin C, zinc and protein powder. Some policemen also started taking Arsenicum Album 30, a homoeopathic formulation, believed to boost immunity.
Policemen above 55 years of age have been allowed to stay home; but the terrible housing conditions allotted to most policemen mean their homes offer little protection from the highly contagious virus.
Nirmal Nagar Police Station’s Head Constable 58-year-old Uday Shinde was due to retire from the force at the end of June, when he caught the virus.
For two decades, Shinde, his wife and two children had lived in accommodation allotted to him by the Mumbai Police Force—a 10x12 feet one-room house in the police quarters in Worli’s BDD chawls. The BDD chawls, where 20 households including Shinde’s share six toilet seats, are among the city’s most severe Covid-19 hotspots.
So even though Shinde was off duty in deference to his age, he continued to live in a high-risk coronavirus hotspot and eventually contracted the virus. He died on June 16, two weeks short of his retirement.
“He passed away on his birthday,” said his son Amey.
Like Shinde, 31% of the police force lives in government housing while the remaining 69% live in private houses. Mumbai’s expensive real estate and high rentals have pushed a large majority of the lower rank constabulary to the city’s periphery, forcing policemen to commute for nearly three hours every day, often after pulling 12 hour shifts. Many commute from the satellite towns of Kasara, Asangaon, Kalyan-Dombivali, among others.
“The living conditions of most lower rank policemen are similar to those living in Dharavi. Many of them live in chawls and slums where the spaces are crammed, and hygiene and sanitation conditions are extremely poor,” Dr Kapote said.
No budget for healthcare and housing
Former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria says police families have no choice but to accept the housing provided to them. “They are just grateful to have a roof on their heads. Whether there is a hole in that roof is immaterial,” he said.
The police department, says Maria, doesn’t bring any revenue to the government like the customs or income tax departments.
“80% of the budget that comes to the police department goes in paying salaries. The remaining 20% is left for infrastructure development, weapons, communication, transportation etc. There is nothing left for healthcare or housing,” he said.
Over the years, enthusiastic officers have organised medical camps and health activities but these are one-off short-term projects, rather than sustained structural fixes. The pandemic has reinforced the need for a long-term solution.
“We are in the process of starting an ambitious programme for comprehensive healthcare of all the constabulary,” said Bajaj, the police joint commissioner. “Over Rs 7 to Rs 8 crores have been invested and we are renovating an entire hospital to the level of private hospitals such as Bombay, Jaslok or Breach Candy.”
The health check-ups are likely to commence from August 15. The department is also considering linking good health to important, sensitive positions and postings.
“This policy is yet to be formulated but ultimately we will link career progression to fitness and health parameters,” he said.
Bajaj said the department has rolled out protocols for policing amidst this pandemic.
“They have been asked to assume that each and every person they meet may be positive,” he said adding that some of the arrested accused have tested positive but it’s hard to pin down the trigger of infection on them. “We don’t know if they have picked the infection at work, during commute, while eating together or while interacting with the public. The only time we saw a clear spurt in infections was when the migrant issue was unfolding and it was simply not possible for the policemen to ensure distancing,” he said.
Maria, the former Mumbai police commissioner, suggests some measures that ought to be implemented immediately.
“Fixed eight-hour duty hours, compulsory weekly offs and annual long leaves of up to 20 days to a month for them to recharge. Also, subsidised canteens, subsidised ration supply, regular allowance for uniform should be offered,” Maria said. “It is very easy to malign the force but the kind of efforts they put in, it is sad that they are acknowledged only in the time of crisis and are a forgotten lot otherwise”.