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Policing the Pandemic: Are the Law Overstepping the Mark?

law pandemic

Roar writer Arjan Arenas scrutinises the response by law enforcement to the Coronavirus pandemic and the effect it has had on the public.

A deadly virus is spreading across the globe and has already killed hundreds of thousands of people. Governments have advised – and are now ordering – the public 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 today, hit by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Naturally, the government are doing their utmost to encourage the public to stay indoors and reduce infection. The police have been tasked with making sure that people follow government guidelines, but as important as it undoubtedly is that coronavirus is taken seriously, recent law enforcement measures have been overstepping the mark.

While the police are right to ward off large gatherings outdoors for non-essential reasons, harassing sunbathers who are observing social distancing rules is a little extreme to say the least. Worse still is the idea that the crackdown on sunbathers might lead to going out for exercise being banned. This would hit those who live in council blocks and who don’t have gardens to run around in especially hard.

There have been some humorously creative efforts to encourage the public to stay in (like that of the prankster near Whitby who sent a Dalek around shouting “Self-isolate!”), but  police attempts to do so seem tone-deaf, most notably when the Derbyshire police force  dyed Harpur Hill Quarry’s popular blue lagoon black to discourage tourists from visiting.

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. Especially disturbing are those who, encouraged by the police, call 999 on neighbours they suspect of going out for a second walk or inviting people round.

The overwhelming majority of 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 are sober, rational guidelines  to avoid spreading and contracting the virus, not knee-jerk reactions spreading fear, paranoia and animosity.

It’s hard to strike the right balance between the public taking the pandemic seriously and the police infringing on their privacy, 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 serious crime.

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