Apocalypse: Now What? Pandemic safety in a protest

A reader asks: How can I protest safely while the coronavirus is still a threat?

Demonstrators gather en masse at Westlake Park

Demonstrators gather en masse at Westlake Park during protests across downtown Seattle, May 30, 2020. A wave of protests has swept across the U.S. following the death of George Floyd. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with murder in Floyd's death. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.


Question: I want to join the public protests against police violence and systemic racism. But I’m worried about my exposure to COVID-19. What should I do?

When we conceived of this column, the idea was to provide practical, tactical advice for how we could all navigate and survive a public health crisis unlike any in living memory. Now, society is owning up to living under two: the recent pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, which has killed over 100,000 Americans; and the 400-year-old one caused by slavery and systemic racism that disproportionately kills Black Americans. 

Public health officials are among the first to link the crises. In an open letter, University of Washington infectious disease experts detail the connection, and go on to express support for the protests as an act of defense for public health.

“White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19. Black people are twice as likely to be killed by police compared to white people, but the effects of racism are far more pervasive.... Black people are also more likely to develop COVID-19. Black people with COVID-19 are diagnosed later in the disease course and have a higher rate of hospitalization, mechanical ventilation, and death.”

[...]

Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”


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By now, upwards of 1,000 epidemiologists, doctors, med students and other health experts have cosigned the letter. It is not an acknowledgment that the protests are safe; in fact, many epidemiologists believe the protests could lead to a surge in COVID-19 infections in the U.S. Given the lag in the appearance of symptoms and unevenness of testing across the country, we won’t know for weeks. But the letter signers are acknowledging that, in the grand scheme, the risk of an older, immoral health crisis outweighs the risk of an amoral, novel one. The protests are essential, and those who wish to participate have a right and duty to do so.

Actually joining those protests means jumping from Risk Management 101 straight to graduation. While being outside somewhat lowers the risk of viral transmission, the very nature of the protests — gathering in close proximity to large groups of people circulating droplets by yelling or singing — puts them squarely in the realm of high-risk activities. Attendees should therefore mitigate those risks to the furthest extent possible.  

First, screen yourself. If you show symptoms, don’t go — full stop. If you fall into a high-risk group or associate closely with those who do, consider staying home. You can still support demonstrations by contributing to bail funds or donating to organizations like Campaign Zero.

If you go, take all you know about protecting yourself from infection and supersize it. Bring multiple masks, separated in plastic bags — both as backups in case you lose one or if they get covered in tear gas or pepper spray, and to distribute to those who might not have one. Attempting 6 feet of social distance will be challenging, but keep trying; the goal is not perfection, but adhering to social distancing wherever and as often as possible. If you are going in a group, avoid mingling or intermixing with other groups. 

More basics: Bring loads of hand sanitizer and water to stay hydrated. Goggles or other protective eyewear offer twofold protection from both coronavirus and irritant gases or rubber bullets. Consider opting for signs or noise makers to limit your dispersal of droplets. You can also violate the Seattle rule and bring an umbrella, which can shield you from projectiles and act as a natural social distancing barrier. 

Finally, when you return from protest, try and get tested for coronavirus if you can, and consider quarantining yourself for two weeks, just in case. Above all, use common sense, and look out for your neighbor. Good luck, and stay safe.

 

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