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Spanish cop Sergio Garrido, recovering at home from Covid-19.

International camaraderie

Doing chores outside his sole-charge station in Haast this past year has led West Coast cop Paul Gurney to make two international police friends.

One lives in Spain, the other in the US state of Indiana. Paul met both while they were on campervan holidays here, and they have been in regular touch with him since. Now they are sharing with him their experiences of dealing with Covid-19.

Paul was sole charge at Haast for 4½ years, until early this year. Last spring he was washing his Police 4WD outside the station when a campervan pulled up. That’s how he met Sergio Garrido, a police officer from Barcelona, and his wife, a nurse, who had stopped to ask directions. On learning he was a fellow officer, Paul showed him around the station.

A month later, Sergio sent a parcel from Spain, containing a Spanish police uniform and a plastic police car, and Paul sent him back New Zealand police badges.

In recent emails to Paul, Sergio has described how he and his wife both caught Covid-19 in March. She caught it from a doctor at the medical centre where she worked. Once she tested positive, they took precautions at home but Sergio was already infected. Initially Sergio had a high fever and a cough, but both he and his wife are now much improved.

He has been stood down from the Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, until the end of April and is whiling away his time watching Netflix and reading. “If you have to be isolated or confined, the most you’ll need is a lot of patience, because time is passing so slow,” Sergio says.

He says the lockdown is a lot stricter in Spain (where, by mid-April, the death toll was topping 20,000). “Here it is completely forbidden to go out without just cause, just for shopping, buying medicines.” Police can issue fines of 600 to 30,000 euros, depending how dangerous the behaviour is, and some transgressors have even been imprisoned.

In Spain, Sergio says, calls for service are down but domestic disputes are on the rise. “But we think the worst part of this will come after the lockdown, because too many people have lost their jobs and the economical government aid won’t be enough, and we’re afraid that many people will commit robberies to get money.”

Officer Ryan McClain, from Indiana in the US, on the road before Covid-19 struck.

Paul met Ryan McClain in February this year, on his very last day in Haast, when he was mowing the lawn for the last time. When Ryan stepped out of his campervan and said, “Don’t worry, it’s not a job”, Paul knew straight away he was a cop, “because that’s exactly what I would have said”.

“Since the weather was awesome, I sent him and his wife to Jackson Bay, which they loved. We’ve been keeping in touch ever since, and now with Covid, a lot more regularly,” Paul says.

Ryan is a deputy in the Hamilton County sheriff’s office, Indiana. Since the pandemic struck, he has been pulled off frontline policing to handle media, while his wife has temporarily lost her job. He told Paul one of the big issues police faced was getting enough protective gear – masks, gloves and sanitiser – for deputies.

In Hamilton County, calls are down dramatically, but domestic disputes, vehicle pursuits and thefts are on the rise, Ryan reports. Contact between officers has been reduced, and deputies decontaminate themselves and their cars before going home.

The sheriff’s office is also in charge of the county jail, with more than 400 inmates, so they had to devise procedures to make sure arrestees and officers weren’t bringing infection into the facility.

Paul says Ryan “is missing the simplicity of being on the road, even though that would bring him face to face with the virus”.

Like Ryan, Paul wants to get back to what he normally does. He was only a month into his new job as a school community officer in Greymouth, when the lockdown came. Normally he would be visiting schools, training kids in traffic safety, keeping themselves safe and other programmes.

Now he and his partner are doing reassurance patrols, checking up on self-isolaters, and doing jobs the frontline cops are too busy for. This work sees them piling up kilometres from Haast to Karamea. (That’s the same distance as Wellington to Auckland.)

It may be some time before Paul, Sergio and Ryan are back on normal duties.

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