Inside Delhi’s containment zone, how the police is coping with pandemic duty
“I have served the department for 22 years. I have never been this stressed throughout my career. This phase is physically tiring and emotionally stressful,” said an officer deployed inside the containment zone in Delhi.
He took out his black wallet, opened it, and showed us his prescribed hypertension tablets. He keeps the medicines handy these days. “I have served the department for 22 years. I have never been this stressed throughout my career. This phase is physically tiring and emotionally stressful,” Ramesh Yadav, a Head Constable with the Delhi Police, told Asiaville.
“My wife was so stressed and worried about my safety that she fell sick. Doctors were giving her glucose drip. But as it is “duty first”, I had to return,” said Yadav.
Prioritising the safety of his family, he has not been back home in 25 days. Yadav is deployed in South East Delhi’s Tughlakabad Extension COVID containment zone. That means his duty includes ensuring that no one enters or exits the sealed neighbourhood without prior permission. It also means that he is supposed to put his life on the line as he is working in an area where multiple COVID cases have been reported.
As the COVID cases in Delhi started to swell, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government – acting on the Centre’s guidelines – identified areas where several COVID cases were being reported. These areas were termed as containment zones. The Delhi Police and local administration have been asked to seal these areas in order to contain the spread of the global pandemic. There are more than 8000 COVID positive cases in the national capital and it has claimed over 100 lives.
One among these lost souls was Delhi Police constable Amit Kumar. The young constable, who had Coronavirus symptoms, died on May 5th. As per reports, when his health condition worsened, at least two hospitals declined to treat him. A test conducted after his death showed that he was positive for COVID-19.
Tragedies such as this worsen the morale of officers like Yadav who are risking their lives inside the containment zones.
“Jab apne sathi ke marne ki khabar aai to laga hum ye sab kyun kar rahe hain, kiske liye kar rahe hain (When we heard our constable died due to Coronavirus, I was wondering why are we risking our lives? And for whom?) They (hospitals) didn’t even treat him,” bemoaned Yadav, sitting inside the tiny police booth located right outside the containment zone. “Who knows, had he received proper medical treatment on time, he might have been saved. He was young. It breaks our morale to know such stories.”
Several Delhi Police officials deployed in containment zones have tested corona positive. The paramilitary forces have been deployed in the containment zones to help out the police. Their jawans too have been affected by the virus.
“In Naxal prone areas, at least we know who our enemy is and where they are. But today, during the present crisis, we are fighting an enemy who we can’t even see,” P Solanki, the personnel attached with the Border Security Force (BSF), told Asiaville. These para-forces work in rotational shifts. Solanki added, “I had never imagined in my life that one such day will come where we will be deployed to contain a global pandemic.”
Four police constables, including Yadav, work at this deployment zone in rotational shifts and are attached to the Govindpuri Police Station. Govindpuri has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the entire South East district.
Tughlakabad Extension was sealed roughly 25 days ago. 56 coronavirus positive cases have been traced to five lanes of this locality with a population of 40,000 – 45,0000. The density has emerged as yet another challenge for the administration. The only sigh of relief for the residents is that over fifty per cent of patients have recovered and returned to their homes.
When asked about the duty conditions, the two head constables deployed here – Yadav and Sanjay Kumar – univocally said they were happy with the department.
“The department is now taking care of us. We have been supplied with PPE kits, sanitisers, gloves, face masks and even immunity boosters,” Sanjay Kumar said. He too had joined the force nearly 22 years ago. Praising local SHO Satish Rana, they said, “He personally enters the containment areas with us. He has been supplying us with fruits and glucose.”
Inside the containment zone
While all five lanes from where the cases were traced to have been sealed with barricades, the police have roped in local volunteers. Akram Alvi, who is associated with an NGO, said that the areas have a mixed population and people have cooperated over the past month. He added that residents become adamant and insist on travelling or stepping out of the area a few times. That is the tricky part of their job: where they have to convince their own neighbours to obey the laws.
Sumit Bhati, geared up in a PPE kit, said that the majority of their duty also involves helping out the residents during the time of emergency and ensuring home delivery of essential supplies.
Some days, to cheer up the residents, the volunteers and local police play “songs on request” in the evenings.
However, the pertinent question of ‘are we testing enough’ looms over this red zone as well. According to the police, of 200 people whose samples were collected, 56 tested positive. That's a whopping 25 per cent ratio. Roughly 40 of these cases were traced to a single family and their neighbours.
These numbers had triggered a panic amongst the residents. “We were living under fear. When multiple cases were traced from our locality, we were afraid that we might have contracted the virus. We were hoping that our tests would be conducted,” a local resident said. When asked whether they were tested, he responded, “No. However, a team of healthcare staff had conducted door to door surveys and asked about medical problems we were facing.”
The fears of residents of localities like this are valid as they are densely populated areas with houses stacked next to each other. The majority of the residents belong to lower-middle-class income groups and also have a high migrant population. These factors increase the risk of the spread of the virus as many can’t afford the preventive measures required.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal himself has accepted that 75 per cent of COVID cases reported in the national capital were now asymptomatic. Also, the government’s Operation SHIELD – a measure to contain the spread of the virus in the containment zones – mandates random checking of residents.
While the residents have concerns regarding testing, their patience is also running out. They have to seek permission for any movement in the locality: right from picking up their rations to withdrawing cash from the ATMs. Being dependent on volunteers is not something every resident appreciates.
The concerns related to business and office have started to bother them. “We have been abiding by the laws and cooperating with the police. But we are incurring financial losses,” 59-year-old Chandra Arora said. He runs a garment manufacturing unit, among other businesses, and each of them has been shut ever since the lockdown was imposed. Offices in Delhi and non-essential business activities have slowly started to resume. But they need to operate as per the government guidelines. However, no such activity is allowed inside the containment zones.
“I have taken loans from different sources to keep up my business. The government should think of some alternative ways so that people like us can resume business activity,” Arora, a resident of the Tughlaqabad containment zone said. These arguments also stem from the fact that the majority of those who tested positive have started to return to their homes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during one of his addresses to the nation, had appealed to people to praise and pray for India’s “Corona warriors”. The healthcare staff, police personnel, para forces, and those involved in the sanitisation process are among those who have been hailed as Corona warriors as the country grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak. The Coronavirus cases have touched nearly 80,000 across the country, and more than 2,500 people have died.
The COVID outbreak has forced offices to shift to “work from homes”. But this is definitely a matter of privilege. Lakhs of frontline workers - including the police - who are fighting to contain this virus don’t have the luxury of working from home.
Kumar and Yadav have spent the last 25 days either patrolling the containment zone, helping those with a medical emergency, or inside the police booth as the Indian summer sets in. The small police booth now serves as their restroom, kitchen, and even bedroom. "We haven't been able to complete our sleep ever since the area was sealed. It's stressful out here," they said.
When Head Constable Sanjay Kumar was asked about the term “Corona warrior”, he smiled and responded, “We are just doing our duty. It is upto the people how they want to treat us.”
During the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protest days, the trust of a section of the minority community in the police was shaken. The COVID-19 outbreak has fixed those problems. At least, that’s what their first-hand experience proves. “They see us with respect now. People from both communities have been cooperating. The residents of the containment zone have showered flower petals on us at least 20-25 times,” Kumar said.
But would these policemen choose a non-COVID duty or stay away from the containment zone if they had a choice? Yadav, who hails from Uttar Pradesh’s Etah district, shared a personal story to respond to this question. “People in my native village saw bulb lightning from electricity only a few years back. When I look back at this journey, I can proudly say Delhi Police has given me a lot. And I must stand as a first-line force in this time of crisis,” Yadav said.
However, assuring their families that they are safe and doing well has been the biggest challenge. “I have to call my family members twice a day. And it has to be a video call – that’s the condition my children have put,” Kumar said. “They want to see my face and make sure I am doing well.”
However, the death of Constable Amit Kumar continues to haunt the frontline staff of the Delhi Police. Now the department has begun to provide all possible equipment to its officials on duty in sensitive zones.
“After our officials tested positive and one of our brave boys died (of) COVID, there were many challenges being faced by the senior officers. But now many of those who had tested positive have started to recover and are sharing their experiences. This has boosted our morale,” ACP Govind Sharma said.