There’s a raging pandemic and the temperature is scorching. But 29-year-old Shilpa Sahu is on the streets in a flowy kurta, with a visible baby bump and a stick in her hand.
In the last few days, this five-month pregnant senior police official in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, swapped her khaki uniform for comfortable South Asian attire, and went viral.
In videos circulating on social media, she is seen stopping commuters and saying, “Wapas jao, ghar jao (Go back, go home).”
“I’m not scared,” the district’s Deputy Superintendent of Police told VICE World News. “If I have to get infected, I can get it in my office also, while signing official documents. But I’m taking all the precautions that can be taken and doing my job.” She added, “If I see people not following COVID protocols, I will go out and stop them.”
With over 128,000 total cases, Sahu’s state has the fourth-highest number of active COVID-19 cases in India. Ever since her district Dantewada placed a lockdown on April 18, Sahu has been out enforcing restrictions. Sahu said that she did not think twice before reporting to duty while pregnant.
“During the first wave, there was definitely more stress on us because there was no vaccine,” she said. “But now frontline workers have been vaccinated.” While Sahu hasn’t gotten her vaccine because of her pregnancy, she said she is “being very careful.”
Sahu has chosen to continue working rather than stay home, because one can get infected even at home too, she reasoned. “Plus, just because a woman is pregnant doesn’t mean she stops working,” she said.
The officer also leads a team of women commandos called Danteshwari Fighters in a region that has been seeing a far-left communist movement against the Indian government for several decades.
Over the last week, India has become the world’s worst-affected COVID-19 hotspot, with nearly 300,000 new cases in the last 24 hours and over 2,000 deaths - both new records for the country.
There is no official data on how many police officers have gotten COVID-19 in India, but an independent think tank called Indian Police Foundation (IPF) recorded over 150,000 total COVID-19 cases and over 900 deaths among state police and Central Armed Police forces in the first 8 months of the pandemic.
As fear and panic envelop Indians grappling with acute shortages of oxygen, hospital beds and drugs, frontline workers such as Sahu, have been working non-stop since the outbreak last year. Police like her have been monitoring check posts, COVID-19 infection hotspots, and ensuring lockdowns.
“It’s challenging to reason with people. But to be honest, while villagers have been pretty easy to deal with, it’s the educated ones - who are fully aware of the risks and know what’s happening in the news - who are stepping out the most for no reason,” said Sahu.
Early this week, a couple in India’s capital Delhi was arrested for abusing cops when they were stopped for not wearing masks. In the past, politicians who broke COVID-19 rules abused police. In one case, a woman cop resigned after she stopped a minister’s son for violating curfew regulations.
Against this backdrop, and longstanding biases against gender equality in India, Sahu’s commitment to keep people off the streets has been widely appreciated online, where she has been praised for her “inspirational” work. A photo of her apprehending violators have also gone viral on social media.
“That has been very motivating for me,” she told VICE World News. “But then there were comments where people were asking why I’m even out in this condition, that I should take leave and stay at home. Some said the government is forcing me to work. The worst were those who said I’m doing it for the media coverage.”
“Right now, as I continue to work, I see some of my colleagues being encouraged that a senior officer is still around,” said Sahu. “I have immense support from my senior officers too. The COVID-19 situation is very serious right now.”
Sahu added that she is due to take maternity leave soon, but said her family has been supportive of her decision to work.
Several reports show that more responsibilities of unpaid care at home fell on women than men in the pandemic, deepening gender inequalities across the world. A 2020 national survey showed that 91.8 percent of Indian women participated in unpaid and caregiving domestic activities, in comparison to only 20.6 percent of men.
“Corona[virus] may have affected everyone, but women - especially working women - have been burdened with more responsibilities from home and work fronts,” said Sahu. “So it’s even more important for us to stay healthy, active and alert.”
She added, “I hope when people see me on the streets, standing for their protection, they decide to stay at home and break the chain of infection.”
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