Police and COVID-19 restrictions: I've seen what a police state looks like and it scares me

Urumqi scared me – I don't mind admitting that. I was only in the city for one night, but that was more than enough to want to get out of there as quickly as possible.

If ever there was an example of how frightening the police can be even when you know you've done nothing wrong, it was Urumqi. This is the capital of China's Xinjiang province, the home of the Uyghur minority group, where massive human rights violations are taking place basically in plain sight, and where the police presence is huge.

To visit there is to understand the power and the intimidation factor of a beefed up and aggressive "protective" force. I was questioned by police – not just border guards, but police at a separate checkpoint – upon entry into the country, taken into a small room and searched and questioned. I had to pass a police checkpoint to enter my hotel. And then I had to pass another police checkpoint to walk down the hallway to get to my room.

At each of these gates you face an officer who glares at you and checks your passport and other papers and leaves you hanging there for long enough to make sure you know that if he felt like it, he could just have you carted away.

One thing you discover when you travel the world is that the police aren't always on your side. In Australia we get used to a certain sense of safety when the coppers are around (though don't get me started on policing "beers snakes" at the cricket). We grow up being told to look for a policeman if we're in trouble.

But then you travel around a bit and you see some things. You see police in Kenya setting up road blocks and just putting their hands out for bribes from passing motorists (which I've witnessed with my own eyes on multiple occasions). You hear tales of police extortion and worse from citizens in Myanmar. You talk to locals in Mexico and discover that there's sometimes not much of a line at all between cartels and cops.

So where is all this taking us? It's taking us to Australia, the place most of us are stuck right now, and to the response to the various coronavirus outbreaks across the country. Because the public face of the fight right now, particularly in Sydney, doesn't seem to be doctors or nurses or health workers or immunologists. It seems to be the police.

Police, who are knocking on doors in south-west Sydney to check on compliance and have brought in support from the Australian Defence Force.

Perhaps news like this brings you comfort. That's certainly the plan, and it's probably popular.


But it doesn't bring me comfort.

Not after Kenya. Not after Mexico. Not after Urumqi. I find it frightening, and I think it's reasonable that a whole lot of people in south-west Sydney – some of whom have migrated from those places I've just mentioned, or other countries with equally questionable police forces, where things like compliance checks are routine and intimidating – could find it frightening as well.

Are these measures necessary? Will they be effective? I'm just a travel writer – I don't know.

I'm not here to comment on the strategies themselves. I'm here to comment on the optics, as someone who knows that those in uniform aren't always your friend, and who understands that there are plenty of people in south-west Sydney who know that much better than I do.

Usually the argument goes: if you haven't done anything wrong then you've got nothing to fear. But I had done nothing wrong in Urumqi, and I can tell you, I was in fear. One wrong move there, one officer having a bad day, one person with a point to prove, and you could find yourself in jail.

It think it's OK to question the heavy police presence in NSW right now, and to be concerned that increased powers are so rarely handed back.

It doesn't mean those things are necessarily the wrong moves, and it doesn't mean you don't take this virus seriously. It just means you don't find all those uniforms as comforting as some.

Have you visited a country with a frightening police presence? Where did you feel most unsafe? How do these places compare to Australia?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

Twitter: twitter.com/bengroundwater

See also: I returned from Australia to Rome, where locals can't believe our restrictions

See also: 'Do not travel?' It's time Australian travellers were treated like adults again

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