Policing polio

Countering this form of violent extremism is insufficient if it simply entails the deployment of the police or Rangers


Zoha Waseem April 21, 2016
The writer is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

In October 2014, under a World Health Organisation initiative, and after much undue delay, Sindh became the first province to notify the establishment of the Emergency Operation Centre to supervise anti-polio campaigns. In November 2014, the Sindh police set up separate teams of policemen to guard polio workers. The separation of a police team designated for such a task appears to be more abstract than real, as there is no clear indication of how such a team prepares for concerned security duties. Last January, there were separate attacks on polio teams in Nazimabad and Orangi Town, Karachi, resulting in at least two police fatalities. According to open sources, between 2012 and 2015, 68 polio workers and police officials were killed. Other estimates tally that the total number of deaths of polio workers and the police deployed to protect them has now surpassed 80 since 2012.



Earlier this year, on separate occasions, the Sindh police ordered “foolproof” security for polio workers. The security measures entailed providing “extraordinary security” to all polio teams during the immunisation days. According to news reports from January, between 4,000 and 8,000 police personnel from the Special Security Unit, Rapid Response Force, Sindh Reserve Police and other departments would constitute the total strength of security tasked with the protection of these teams. These measures were presented to the local media through pressers and officials reports. The practice was repeated in February, when “stringent security measures” were announced with the alleged promise of deploying 12,000 security personnel from multiple forces and agencies. Reports on this week’s drive suggested that 5,000 police personnel were assigned on security duties for over 6,000 health workers in Karachi.

Insecure watchdogs, whose actual numbers during deployment are difficult to verify regardless of what is reported prior to the launch of each campaign, are routinely assigned to such security duties in a hasty and often unorganised fashion to an already insecure and vulnerable health campaign. Earlier this week, this year’s fourth anti-polio campaign was launched across the six districts of Karachi. On April 20, seven policemen were killed in attacks in Karachi by eight militants on motorbikes in two separate incidents, leading to a temporary suspension of the anti-polio drive in affected areas, further stalling the eradication process, limiting city-wide drives and compromising the entire campaign.

The policemen deployed on these security duties are often recruits from interior Sindh and are generally untrained to protect polio workers in volatile areas of this congested city. They become, involuntarily, securitised objects. This refers to the idea that both soft targets — the polio workers and policemen — face an existential threat and the traditional measures to counter this threat are no longer working. By the time armed, motorcycle-borne militants ride up near a vaccination camp and start emptying their magazines onto a team of workers, it is unlikely that the lathi-bearing police-walla, without a bulletproof vest, pulled from the reserves and made to stand at a location on the orders of the designated thana-in-charge, will be able to respond in kind, let alone in hot pursuit. It is, simply, a flawed policy and practice that endangers both cops and polio workers.

Countering this form of violent extremism against anti-polio teams is insufficient if it simply entails the deployment of the police or paramilitary personnel. Countering it must begin at the roots, where the anti-polio narrative consists of irrational arguments, such as: ‘polio vaccinations are anti-Islam’; ‘they are part of a Western conspiracy’; ‘they are a tool for espionage’; ‘they lead to infertility in Muslim men’. This narrative is still being manufactured, propagated and ingrained by radical elements within our society. Countering this narrative is not a task we realistically can, or even should, entrust to a bleeding police force that has lost at least 550 officials due to various acts of violence in Karachi in the last four years (on average, 130 cops a year).

In order to change this particular narrative from the bottom-up, we need to start prioritising human security as much, if not above, the security of the state. In Pakistan, efforts towards human security have been ad hoc, superficial and reactive at best, rather than preventive or pre-emptive. Until a shift in priorities — from the state to the civilian — does not take place within the individual, community and national consciences, the unfortunate relationship between public health (a crucial element of human security) and violent conflict (terrorism, political or structural violence, or even armed warfare) will not be adequately understood, let alone broken.

There is no point in statistically presenting the results of the Karachi operation every few months or discussing ‘logical conclusions’ and our advances towards them, if neither can incorporate human security, inclusive of development, human rights, access to public health, gender equality and food, water and environmental security as primary indicators of stability and growth. Unfortunately, human security falls low on the priority list for developing countries suffering from terrorism. The latter is still largely understood as a threat that must be neutralised militarily, and thus any form of violence associated with it — such as the targeted killings of polio workers — must be addressed similarly. This association may not be incorrect, but the application of the same countermeasures to both threats is faulty and short-sighted. The human condition cannot be expected to improve through traditional, militarised policies.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 22nd,  2016.

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COMMENTS (2)

hasan | 4 years ago | Reply This is a well written article but there are factual mistakes unless I am wrong. Interested to know about the polio attacks in Karachi in January resulting in two fatalities??
pk | 4 years ago | Reply What next? GIVING F16 cover to protect polio team. No body is even ready to acknowledge ideology behind polio refusal.
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