The Slatest

The Best Photo We Didn’t Use This Week: Cops Are Fighting COVID … by Becoming COVID?

A row of three police officers wearing helmets and holding shields and batons all made to look like the COVID-19 virus (they are covered with red fake fur, cones, and white balls). Behind them, four more police officers stand on horseback.
Noah Seelam/Getty Images

Slate’s homepage editors spend a lot of time looking for editorial photos to put on our site. Those searches sometimes yield unexpected results: random, perplexing, and mesmerizing photos that don’t belong on the homepage, but that are too good not to share. Every week, we’ll share the weirdest photo from the wires.

What search term was used to find this in Getty?
“india coronavirus”

What were you hoping to find?
My colleague Nitish Pahwa was searching for photos of India’s public health response for his reporting on the country’s devastating COVID-19 surge.

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What did you find instead?
A row of police officers sporting gear made to resemble SARS-CoV-2. Their helmets, shields, and batons are upholstered with red fake fur and cones topped with what appear to be ping-pong balls or plastic foam spheres. Kind of a trypophobic nightmare.

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What’s the actual backstory here?
The display in this June 9 photo was part of the Hyderabad police force’s attempt to raise awareness about the dangers of COVID-19 and urge residents to follow the city’s lockdown protocols. While India’s first wave of the pandemic was relatively mild, its caseload this spring was catastrophic, with the country’s hospitals and infrastructure unable to handle the crush of people sick and dying.

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The police officers’ outfits are certainly memorable, so consider our awareness … raised? However, the unusual accoutrements raise more questions than answers. Who thought of this concept? Does the police department have a costume designer on call, or were these homemade? It is hard to imagine a police force assembling these dramatic, science fiction–style get-ups as a law enforcement tactic—rather than, say, a bunch of kids doing it for a school play or Halloween.

Since the pandemic began, India’s police officers have gotten creative to enforce COVID-19 safety measures. Kerala police danced in viral videos to educate the public about hand-washing and masking. In April 2020, police in the northern city of Chandigarh unveiled a set of giant tongs to apprehend suspects from 6 feet away; they called it a “social distancing clamp.”

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There have also been numerous instances of Indian police using humiliating punishments and brute force against civilians for breaking pandemic safety guidelines, such as beating up vendors and food delivery workers and forcing lockdown violators to write “I did not follow the rules of lockdown. I am very sorry” on a piece of paper. A report from the National Human Rights Commission highlighted a long-standing culture of cruelty among the country’s police. Before the pandemic, Indian police routinely used tear gas, batons, and beatings against civilians and those in custody.

There’s a dark mismatch between this brutal history and these officers’ whimsical helmets and shields—and some inadvertent symbolism in police presenting themselves as anthropomorphized versions of a deadly plague after a year in which police violence and the pandemic ravaged marginalized communities around the world.

Why is this the weird photo of the week?
It definitely makes me want to stay more than 6 feet away from those police officers!

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