As protesters take to the streets in dozens of US cities to mourn the death of George Floyd, resist police violence, and demand justice, many are wondering whether it’s possible to participate safely with the Covid-19 pandemic still spreading and taking lives.
On social media, there’s been a lot of discussion of the intersecting risks: how protesters risk retaliation from police, risk violence at the hands of counterprotesters, and risk Covid-19 infection, which they could then spread to others. And many have judged the protesters harshly for taking all of these risks.
But looming above it is the long history of police violence as a wretched public health crisis of its own.
1 in 1000 Black men and boys will be killed by police in their lifetime.— Rhea Boyd, MD (@RheaBoydMD) May 31, 2020
1 in 1000 is also the mortality rate of measles, a risk deemed so deadly, it has near constant public health surveillance and prevention.
That we don't treat police violence the same is a form of racism.
As the basketball legend and writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the LA Times, “African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands.”
And protesters are considering the risks in their decision to go out. As August Nimtz Jr., who joined protests in Minneapolis on Tuesday, told Time, “I’m a 77-year-old African-American male. I’ve gotta be concerned [about catching COVID-19], but at the same time there’s the importance of coming out into the streets. We had to do this. If we don’t do it the cops will get away with it again.”
Fears that the protests may lead to more Covid-19 infections, and set the US back further in its fight against the virus, are understandable. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told CNN Sunday she was particularly worried the protests might fan outbreaks in communities of color already disproportionately impacted by the virus. “I’m extremely concerned we are seeing mass gatherings,” Bottoms said. “We’re going to see the other side of this in a couple of weeks.”
One obvious reason the gatherings may be risky is that it can be very hard, if not impossible, to maintain at least 6 feet of distance in large groups of people. Some health departments are still urging people to try:
Plan to protest? Here are tips to reduce the risk of spreading #COVID19:— nychealthy (@nycHealthy) May 30, 2020
✔️Wear a face covering
✔️Wear eye protection to prevent injury
✔️Use hand sanitizer
✔️Don't yell; use signs & noise makers instead
✔️Stick to a small group
✔️Keep 6 feet from other groups
The good news, according to epidemiologists and doctors, is that there are many ways (besides wearing a mask) to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus or being infected in the streets while exercising the right to protest. The risk will not be zero, but protesters can minimize harm to themselves and others. So what should you bring to a protest?
Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, summed up the tips in this Saturday tweet:
Harm reduction for protests in a pandemic:— Ellie Murray (@EpiEllie) May 30, 2020
•wear your mask + eye protection + heat resistant gloves
•yelling can spread droplets, choose signs, drums, or similar noise makers
•stick with a buddy group to keep your unknown contacts low
•carry water + hand sanitizer + bandages
As they’ve disseminated this advice, Murray and several other health experts have been accused of hypocrisy — for condemning the anti-lockdown protests of April and early May as a Covid-19 risk, but not doing the same for the police violence protests.
Murray clarified her position: “Yes, I condemned the anti-lockdown protests,” she wrote. “Yes, I support the #BlackLivesMatter protests. No, those aren’t contradictory views. COVID is a public health emergency. So is racism. We need to fight both.”
Here’s how Tara Smith of Kent State University put it:
From several commenters, "why aren't you yelling about these protestors?"— Dr. Tara C. Smith (@aetiology) May 31, 2020
I'm worried about them, yes. But if you see no difference between people protesting for their ability to get a haircut during a pandemic vs. fighting against being murdered by police, I can't help you.
Other health experts have been jumping in with additional helpful advice for protesters, who may be exposed to pepper spray and rubber bullets in confrontations with police:
For all the protestors, pepper spray is oil based. If you get sprayed DO NOT rub your eyes. Immediately blink as much as you can to wash out some of the oil with your own tears. Then, wash your eyes with baby shampoo and rinse copiously with water. Be safe.— Dr. Glaucomflecken (@DGlaucomflecken) May 31, 2020
To protect the eyes from rubber bullets, protections like face shields, umbrellas, safety glasses, and goggles are recommended:
If you’re going to a protest, please look into protective ballistic eyewear. Good article on what to look for linked below. A set of glasses will set you back $25-30 after shipping. Please stay safe.https://t.co/w8Xoh9ppBq https://t.co/Zp732Fba42— Matt McClure (@BrendTheCow) May 31, 2020
Meanwhile, some protesters are reminding each other that they should stay home if they feel ill or have a fever, helping to reduce the risk of spread for everyone.
Lastly, DO NOT ATTEND IF YOU FEEL ILL. Take your temp before you leave the house if you can and if you have a fever STAY HOME.— Saba M (@gimmiemosab) May 30, 2020