Policing the healthy and the unhealthy

Research in the time of COVID-19

Under the heading “Research in the time of Covid-19” we publish a range of blogs connecting our evidence, thoughts, new ideas, hopes and fears to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for society, social research, labour markets, social and health policies.

Günter Stummvoll

Research projects at the European Centre demonstrate the significance of inter-disciplinary thinking particularly in times of the worldwide Covid-19 crisis. In fact, what is currently designated as a “health crisis” expands beyond medicine and calls for expertise in several other disciplines of the scientific arena such as economics, political science, legal studies, information technology, sociology and philosophy. Hence, expertise in health economics, social welfare politics, law enforcement, technology assessment and ethics is needed to gauge the social consequences in this situation. In the following contribution, I would like to present findings from European Centre’s research together with fresh ideas to underline this inter-disciplinary approach.

Policing the healthy


Unemployment and economic decline, education and distance learning at schools and universities, medical support systems, and the provision of care work are some of the political topics that have emerged and consolidated throughout the current Covid-19 crisis. Another debate has materialised more recently and reflects concerns that western democracies jettison principles of basic citizen rights as a consequence of rigorous restrictions in social life.

One striking concomitant in the current situation is the tension between health surveillance and law enforcement. A huge majority of people follow the governmental orders which in fact present serious infringements of civil rights and restrictions of individual freedom. Some towns and regions in Austria are in quarantine which implies curfew measures, with limited exceptions to leave the house for grocery shopping and for professional duties. In other places, people are besought to stay at home as far as possible. All trading chains, department stores and service deliveries as well as culinary establishments, entertainment and tourist facilities are closed.

This affects basic citizen rights such as the freedom of assembly and association (Art. 11/2 ECHR), the right to demonstrate, the right to economic trade and services, and the right to privacy. Politicians appeal to the people’s reason to follow the orders, but nevertheless these orders are legally binding and enforceable. In this situation, individual deviance is considered unhealthy for the community.

At the European Centre we are concerned with the consequences of this tension and we carefully observe the problem of health surveillance in terms of infringements of democratic principles. This crisis opens the doors for observation of, and investigation into, the behaviour of citizens to foster everyone’s compliance with the rules. However, there is a thin line between observation, investigation and surveillance, and technology plays a significant role in this context.

Surveillance technology has the capacity to collect data from the masses. Big data collection also refers to the particular practice of mobile phone tracking by phone companies who then transmit the data to authorities. This, we are assured, happens in an anonymous form, to prevent authorities form individual tracking. But we may ask questions about the consequences: What are authorities doing with the data? How will they analyse them with what purpose and what consequences? How will police patrol corona-hotspots, and to what size may hotspots shrink before we call it an infringement of the right to privacy? In other words: How much can police zoom-in from public to private space? Will this kind of risk assessment drown out basic citizen rights?

The purpose of data collection in this particular situation of a health crisis is certainly to provide an overview of people’s discipline to follow the order: If too many people are outside in public space, this is counterproductive to the aims of health protection. Economic game theorists will be quick to refer to this situation as the equivalent to the classic “prisoner’s dilemma”, a paradox in decision analysis in which individuals acting in their own self-interest do not produce the optimal outcome. Usually two parties choose to protect themselves at the expense of the other party. Here, people shall shake off their egotism and act for the benefit of the common good. This represents the exceptional situation in which solidarity shall be guaranteed by social distancing and curfews. Politicians hope for a new social contract and a new sense of morality.

Anyhow, if too many people pursue their self-interest and break the curfew, they break the social contract, and this is what authorities want to observe and investigate. Therefore, analysis of individual movements leads to the production of complex hotspot maps that display high concentration of people in public space, which is to the detriment of public health in this situation. What are the options for counter measures of the police in the name of health protection?

First, the police can patrol the hotspot and prompt people via megaphones to go home. Second, police can fine people in public space who do not observe the ban on assembly. These measures are punitive and simple. However, thirdly, policing may be subtler in using data profiling techniques: Data tracking allows the location – and movement – of individual mobile phones and thus offers the police access to people who break the stay-at-home orders. The police may legitimately argue they merely execute legal orders similar to traffic rules, when they track down people who break curfews. Fourth, in the exceptional situation of a crisis, mobile phone companies may be allowed (or encouraged) to change contracts and link their services to the new curfew measures. Then, a fine can quickly be added to the usual phone bill, if curfews are broken. This situation resembles the provisions of insurance companies that provide conditional protection depending on the customer’s behaviour (e.g. storing the bicycle in a room that is locked).

Finally, instead of collaborating with mobile phone companies, the police may be tempted to negotiate a contract with health services, particularly the Red Cross. Surveillance becomes much more legitimate when the Red Cross provides all citizens with technology that apparently helps them to stay healthy. Surveillance becomes consensual when effective marketing helps promoting the application as a utility that pretends to protect. This contributes to a situation when people will rather listen to a warning by an electronic application than being sensitive to one’s own feelings of health and illness. We can already see people walking paranoid in public, eyes fixed on smartphones to permanently check whether people around them are infected or have seen someone in the last 48 hours who may be infected.

There are two problems: First, commercial marketing techniques will allow surveillance of the healthy to become consensual and instrumental. Secondly, as soon as the crisis abates, surveillance technology will not be reversed but rather acclaimed as progress in sustainable health prevention.

This is why the European Centre is intending to get engaged in multi-disciplinary research in terms of critical (social) technology assessment at the interface of health protection, social care and surveillance studies.

Policing the unhealthy


Throughout the Covid-19 health crisis social policy researchers alert us that some groups in the population are more at risk than others. Older people and all those who already suffer from other illnesses are at risk of developing severe forms of illness when they get infected with Covid-19.

Researchers at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research currently work in several research projects to investigate foundations and consequences of social inequalities with regard to marginalised groups in society. Most projects have, of course, started before the Covid-19 pandemic occurred. This crisis has hit the projects sideways and given them a new impetus with new perspectives on their way.

One particular project, started in November 2018, is “SWaPOL – Social Work and Policing”, co-funded by the ERASMUS+ programme of the European Commission. This training project is carried out in Austria, Portugal and Belgium and aims, first, to develop a model for vocational training that brings social workers and police prevention officers in contact with each other; secondly, to compile a training manual for trainers who want to teach that course in the future. We are hoping to come to conclusions to improve mutual understanding for each other’s profession and the respective occupational structures, job ethics and routine activities in daily practice.

The Covid-19 crisis has hit the project at the time of data collection, i.e. when pilot trainings were on the way to being tested. Although the 5-days pilot trainings could be completed in Austria and Portugal, the training in Belgium had to be stopped after day 2. We may still have enough information and good findings to draw conclusions for a future vocational training, but the health crisis has also given us a new impulse and new food for thought.

Whereas the crisis is certainly disrupting the project as such and is certainly unfavourable at this moment, we may say that, conversely, the project comes at the right time for the crisis. It seems that at this time, the two professional groups revert to their original professional mandates of law enforcement and social support. The media present the police in their original role of order maintenance by patrolling the streets, parks and urban places, in particular enforcing the curfew measures pronounced by the government. On the other side, social workers point to the fact that their clientele belong to the population with additional health risks. Especially people with drug dependence and homeless people are particularly vulnerable in the situation of this health epidemic.

This time of crisis presents an extraordinary challenge to the idea of community policing and the collaboration between social workers and police officers. The curfew measures must appear ridiculous and absurd to people who have no place to stay other than a public park. And it is here, that professional mandates may clash and the good intentions of social workers and police officers to collaborate threaten to fail. While social workers protect their clientele from law enforcement, police are expected to enforce the rules of social distancing and control access to dedicated public places such as urban parks.

This is the moment, when we shall take advantage of the situation of crisis and carefully reflect upon action in practice. In addition to the setting of a pilot training where we discussed professional roles in theory and exchanged ideas in experimental exercises, this crisis gives the opportunity to observe the quality of collaboration under extraordinary conditions – with the following guiding questions:

  • Can police prevention workers maintain their particular tasks in community policing in times of the crisis?
  • What kind of situations occur in direct confrontation between police officers and social workers in regard to the new curfew measures?
  • Does the organisational structure in the respective professions obstruct or support the prevention work?
  • Has the particular understanding of “prevention” changed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis? Theoretically, and in practice?

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