Friday, April 19, 2024

BPS hid outbreak of 34 virus cases at its HQ

The Botswana Police Service (BPS) failed to publicly report an outbreak of 34 COVID-19 cases that were discovered at its headquarters ahead of last month’s lockdown in the Greater Gaborone Zone. Worse still, the Service flouted public health protocols that have been put in place by the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce.

Sunday Standard learns that in the week that the most recent regional lockdown for the Greater Gaborone Zone was announced, the BPS HQ at the Government Enclave in Gaborone, recorded 34 cases of COVID-19. The officers were later hospitalized at the Sir Ketumile Teaching Hospital which is located at the main campus of the University of Botswana in Gaborone.

Due to the shortage of office accommodation, BPS’ HQ has three satellite offices (one in the CBD at Zambezi House, the other at the Gaborone International Finance Park and the third at Block 8. Officers from these offices visit HQ on an almost daily basis and numerous times a day in some cases. When the outbreak was discovered, all officers at the satellite offices were tested at the HQ because some had interacted with positive cases either as close or casual contacts. The health protocols from the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce stipulate that close contacts should immediately go into quarantine and that casual contacts should self-isolate while both groups await test results. Following an ill-fated encounter with a COVID-positive nurse during a special national lockdown session, MPs had to be quarantined in line with such protocols.

A good source tells Sunday Standard that instead of being either quarantined or instructed to self-isolate, officers from satellite offices immediately went back to work while they awaited the test results. For what it is worth, travel between HQ and the satellite offices was suspended in order to guarantee zero contact between the two groups of officers.

However, there were two more lapses, one flouting standard COVID-19 protocols and the other a dramatic departure from what has become voluntary but standard public health protocol for organisations of BPS’s calibre. HQ and the three satellite offices remained open and the workplace outbreak was not publicly reported. On the quite simple reasoning that a public health issue should be public knowledge, it has become standard practice that when an organisation discovers a COVID-19 case among staff, it puts out a public notice. Among organisations that have done that are UB, the Directorate of Public Service Management, Stanbic Bank, Botswana Open University, Civil Aviation Authority of Botswana, the Ministry of Investment, Trade and Industry and various schools.

There is a positive effect that comes from this transparency: information about workplace outbreaks allows everyone to know the full gravity of the situation, makes members of the public fully aware of the magnitude of health risk they take, enables people to better understand what is actually happening in their communities with regard to COVID and puts them in a better position to avoid risks of COVID-19 infection. For some, the latter could mean avoiding places where there has been an outbreak or being extra cautious when visiting such places. In the particular case of BPS, that means that people who would otherwise have avoided visiting its HQ may have unwittingly done so because one very vital piece of information was not shared with the public.

Empowering as it is, the public reporting of outbreaks is a matter of choice and not a legal requirement – which will give BPS a lot of weasel room. Be that as it may, information-sharing about workplace outbreaks (which is the definition of transparency) has been very empowering for members of the public.

BPS’ chief spokesperson, Assistant Commissioner of Police Dipheko Motube, would not take any questions regarding the matter, instead referring us to the Presidential COVID-19 Taskforce. While it crafts health protocols and coordinates national effort to contain the pandemic, the Taskforce wasn’t part of the decision-making apparatus that failed to publicly report the BPS HQ outbreak.

Apparently, concealing workplace outbreaks is becoming a problem worldwide. In the United States, students at the University of Texas at Austin have created a petition asking management to contact all students and staff living in residence halls where positive cases have been identified. In Indonesia, the local chapter of Human Rights Watch has called on the government to ensure that people know the true extent of the coronavirus outbreak in the country by providing accurate statistics to the public.

BPS has not been a model of transparency with regard to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Days before the national lockdown went into effect, Sunday Standard sought to know from Motube how the stringent coronavirus protocols were being implemented in police holding cells.

With COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic having reached every corner of the globe, the government has declared a full frontal counter-attack – even in the most improbable environments and situations. One such environment is evidently the holding cell in a police station where it would be possible to implement social distancing – which are continuously being revised upwards in terms of distance. Where it takes the form of “extracting information” from suspects as well as handcuffing, subduing and fingerprinting them, police work is natively designed to defy coronavirus guidelines on social distancing. The COVID-19 protocols also recommend that people should wash hands periodically with soap as well as ensuring proper ventilation to reduce the spread of pathogens.

Motube didn’t illuminate this issue. To a direct question that sought clarity on how social distancing is being implemented in police cells across the country, all he would say was that he couldn’t “share every little detail of what we are doing.” He would also not “divulge” information about the size of an average holding cell in police station. As to whether those cells are well-ventilated, his response was, “Our facilities are ready for the COVID-19 compliance.”

Conversely, Justice Motlhabani, the Botswana Patriotic Front spokesperson, has stated in his court papers that COVID-19 protocols are not observed in prison and police cells.Arrested in Palapye in April this year, he was subsequently transferred to Gaborone where he was first detained at the Gaborone West Police Station and later at the Urban Police Station. Thereafter, he was briefly held at the Lobatse Prison.

“I could have possibly been exposed to COVID-19 infection at any of the detention centres and my continued movement could have exposed others,” Motlhabani states in what ultimately became a successful bail application at the High Court.


Read this week's paper