The Covid-19 crisis for SA's police

A police officer at Cape Town Central police station.
A police officer at Cape Town Central police station.
Image: Aron Hyman

It was an hour of uncertainty at Greenpoint police station on Monday afternoon.

The charge office was one of more than a thousand across SA where officers waited to hear what new measures President Cyril Ramaphosa would announce on Monday night to try to curb the spread of coronavirus in SA.

There was not a single member of the public at the station, where an officer posed for a selfie with one of a handful of masks. .

They will most likely be the men and women on the front line, with the army and medical staff, as the country goes into 21 days of lockdown at midnight on Thursday.

“I was supposed to go home to the Eastern Cape, but I don’t think I will be able to go now. I will have to stay here and do my duty,” said an officer.

At Cape Town Central police station, the largest in the city, the station’s management has dug into its sports club funds to buy masks, hand sanitiser and gloves.

On Sunday, police minister Bheki Cele said on eNCA that 70,000 pieces of “gear” were being distributed to police stations.

“The market to buy this gear is dry and it is highly contested between [the department of] health and other people.

“We have tried to start with the charge offices, because they are most in contact with people coming to make complaints,” said Cele. “The last time the figure we had was 70,000. That can fit all at the front line. But that does not give gear to all the police as we speak.”

He said the distribution of face masks, hand sanitiser and gloves started before the weekend.

“In the police we have 197,000 men and women, though some of them are not at the front line, they are at the offices, but everyone must get the right gear,” he said.

But police management and officers, who did not have permission to speak to the media, told TimesLIVE there was no soap in their bathrooms and that the protective gear was depleted as soon as it was received because some of the items were disposable, such as masks.

At Cape Town Central, a few officers could be seen wearing gloves. Only one had a mask.

According to police spokesperson Brig Vish Naidoo, a directive was issued that provincial police management had to procure protective equipment.

“A directive was issued on 14 March 2020 to precincts around the country for the procurement of all the necessary equipment, including masks and sanitisers for our members to protect them against this virus,” he said.

As restrictions took effect before the weekend, which included closing pubs and clubs after 6pm, Cape Town’s city centre slowly entered a state of hibernation.

At night, only drug dealers, sex workers, thieves and beggars skulked up and down a near-deserted Long Street.

A few tourists attempted to find an open restaurant, but only fast food chains were operating.

At one in Long Street a homeless man tried to sell a live owl to passers-by and a drug dealer aggressively tried to sell cocaine to patrons. Its clientele has all but abandoned the chain.

Under these conditions, said a top police officer anonymously at Cape Town Central, crime statistics have dropped drastically, especially robberies.

“Most of our victim profiles are usually people coming to work in the city that are robbed and people who ride the trains. Tourists also make up a significant number of victims, but Bo-Kaap is a total shutdown, no tourists can go there,” said the officer.

But the officers fear for ordinary police members.

“Cape Town Central has 39 members per shift. If one gets sick the whole shift might have to go into quarantine. What happens with policing then?” said the officer.

There was no official state transport for plain-clothed officers, who mostly relied on public transport, said the officer. This made them more susceptible to contracting the virus and spreading it at their stations, to the people they served and in their communities when they went home.

“We are going home to our families. Every day you are going home you have to think about what you are wearing, you have to scrub yourself down. Every one of us is concerned about what we are touching,” said the high-ranking officer.

According to Renate Barnard, trade union Solidarity’s sector coordinator for the public sector, police face a “huge crisis” at a critical time.

“We are extremely concerned. We are getting questions from various people asking us what their options are, their rights, what can they do..

“I know that at many police stations there is not even toilet paper, never mind soap ... The joke is they say that you have to wash your hands for 20 seconds. They have cupboards full of condoms, but no toilet paper,” she said.

“I shudder to think of the conditions at big stations like Hillbrow, Johannesburg Central, Pretoria Central and Cape Town Central, which sit with cells full of people. It’s frightening,” said Barnard.

Police officers at Cape Town Central police station wearing latex gloves, their only form of protection against coronavirus.
Police officers at Cape Town Central police station wearing latex gloves, their only form of protection against coronavirus.
Image: Aron Hyman

She said the union had asked police how they plan to distribute the equipment to their members at SA’s 1,100-odd stations. They said they were negotiating with distributors.

“The reality at station level is that there is not enough equipment. I spoke with members at a station in Limpopo. There are almost 400 members at the station and they got 30ml bottles of hand sanitiser, but they didn’t even get 100, so who is going to get a bottle and who is not?” she asked.

“The people work in the cells, they have to keep watch over the people in the cells, they do arrests, they have to go to all of these shebeens. If a lockdown were to come and they had to move around with the army outside they are completely defenceless,” said Barnard.

“We put the police on record. They say the dilemma is that the producers can’t deliver quickly enough, but they also have to provide a certain quality. It won’t help giving sub-standard equipment.

“Strictly, the law of occupational health and safety says employers are obliged to take all reasonable steps to give their workers a safe and healthy environment. I wonder what a reasonable step would be in this case. They have the wonderful standard operating procedures and all the instructions were sent out, but what about the equipment?”

Members tried to buy equipment themselves, but in many cases were unable to find shops that still sold masks, Barnard said.

A letter from national police commissioner Gen Kehla Sithole to police management on Friday, titled “Protocols for the Containment and Management of the Covid-19 within the SAPS”, said front line employees had to be issued with masks and latex gloves. 

But the police are not alone.

“We went to the department of correctional services and they are in the same situation. All the awaiting-trial prisoners and newly arrested suspects are going to jail. They are sitting with the same dilemma.

“They have an employee health and wellness programme, but whether they are geared for the emotional impact of what is coming ... It’s not jusaffectysical thing that you have to protect yourself against, it’s also about the emotional crisis, and I don’t think they have the resources,” said Barnard.

She said the emotional stress on police was of grave concern, as some members were far away from family. Those who did go home after a day dealing with the public could be endangering their loved ones.

“These are people who don’t have their families with them and wonder what is going to happen to their families during this time. It’s a huge crisis,” said Barnard.