Article and photos by Kotie Geldenhuys
“When the whole world pressed the reset button, policing continued. When world economies collapsed, policing continued. When businesses closed down, policing continued. When everyone was locked down in their homes, policing continued. When news of police officers who were arrested for wrongdoing made headlines, policing continued. When statistics of the COVID-19 infections skyrocketed to alarming figures, policing continued ... When the invisible enemy attacked everyone, including police officers armed with bulletproof vests and machine guns, policing continued ...” - Minister of Police, Mr Bheki Cele (SAPS, 2020a).
During their daily duties police officials are exposed to a unique set of challenges. But during the past couple of months, law enforcement agencies faced even more challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During pandemics, such as COVID-19, law enforcement agencies are responsible for working with government and public health officials to contain the spread, serve the local community, maintain public order and conduct their normal policing duties.
As police officials are the first to deal with the public when a crime is committed or to enforce the law, they also have to face the threat of violence against them. During the past couple of months, they have been presented with a new invisible threat, namely COVID-19. Although every person runs the risk of being exposed to this virus, law enforcement comprises “inherently close-contact work with strangers and some of the most marginalised people”. Police officials are therefore on the frontlines when dealing with pandemics and enforcing response measures, while they are simultaneously at a greater risk of exposure and infection (Poston, 2020).
Despite the SAPS’s best efforts to keep the virus at bay by getting police officials to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitise their hands, vehicles and work stations and maintain social distancing while enforcing the law, many infections occurred. The Minister of Police, Mr Bheki Cele announced that by 31 December 2020, 21 294 SAPS employees had already been infected with COVID-19, of whom 336 had sadly already lost their lives to the virus (SAPS, 2020b).
One of the first police members who lost his life due to COVID-19 was Capt Andrew Leslie, the acting commander of Middelburg Police Station in the Eastern Cape. According to his wife, who also tested positive, he might have contracted the virus from another police member who was working with him at a roadblock (Dayimani, 2020). His death on 11 May 2020 came as a huge shock and people reacted in various ways while grieving the passing of a great policeman. Some had a lot of questions, while others blamed government for not taking care of their employees. When Servamus shared the news of Capt Leslie’s passing on our Facebook page, Facebook user (a police member) made the following comment: “I blame Government and SAPS Management for not providing us with proper PPE and we are expected to go outside and police adults that don’t want to listen and can’t even control their own children. We have a Minister that is only making a lot of noise and is more concerned about alcohol and kissing.”
The same shock and disbelief were clear when the news broke about the passing of Lt-Col Raymond Monyai, the Station Commander of Boschkop Police Station in Pretoria on 5 July 2020. Police members who knew him well and who worked closely with him were shocked by his passing. One member told Servamus in disbelief just days after his passing, that “we just had a meeting with him last week and today he is gone”.