If you’re set on protesting, how can you protect yourself from these dangers?
Cassandra Pierre, an infectious-disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center, understands the precarious act of trying to balance covid-19 protection with demands for social justice.
“It’s heartbreaking, because there’s our desire to be out there and protest, but many of the marches might be impromptu or not have enough planning,” said Pierre, who is African American. “Some people will have masks, some won’t, and people will be clustered together to make their voices louder.” She’s also concerned about the health effects of tear gas and other dispersal tactics on communities of color already coping with a higher covid-19 risk and public health inequities.
Pierre emphasized that protesters should not be tempted to abandon the guidance on masks and should bring hand sanitizer and do their share to protest safely.
“I’m aligned to this fight. I feel it viscerally. But I’m terrified when I see people without masks shouting and chanting and spreading respiratory droplets. It’s an opportunity to transmit covid-19 on a large scale,” Pierre said.
Besides wearing a mask, experts say protesters should make their statements with placards and signs and avoid the sort of chanting and yelling that propel potentially infected droplets into the air.
Pierre said she was encouraged by efforts to distribute masks in preparation for protests in some cities, and by the presence of peace officers urging physical distancing. She said she planned to attend a protest in Boston on Tuesday but would remove herself if she couldn’t feasibly distance. She had also encouraged her white colleagues to protest peacefully and safely in their communities, emphasizing that the burden of pushing for social change needs to be shared.
If you’re sick, however, stay home. If you have underlying health issues that put you at risk, evaluate your priorities carefully. And if you live with anyone whose health or age makes them vulnerable to a serious covid-19 infection, consider deeply your obligation to protect them. Pierre reiterated CDC guidelines that specify a two-week self-isolation period for anyone exposed to the virus, a guideline people who attend protests should heed if possible.
As far as supplies other than masks and sanitizer, Amnesty International’s “Safety During Protest” page advises people to bring water bottles — several, you may be out for long hours in the heat — with squirt tops to drink or to rinse out eyes or skin in the event of injury. In addition, you should bring your ID and emergency contact cards, and cash for food and transportation, preferably in a lightweight backpack. The guidelines also list “shatter resistant swimming goggles” to prevent eye injuries from tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and rubber bullets — all of which police have employed during the past week of protests. Goggles can also help protect against covid-19 exposure.
Linda Tirado, a freelance photojournalist who was shot in the left eye while covering a protest in Minneapolis, urged on Twitter: “If you do head out: take protective gear. . . . Take extra medical supplies and equipment if you have it. Wear long sleeves and long trousers.” Protective clothing can help ward off the worst effects of tear gas exposure.
A 2019 Popular Science report now circulating widely on social media urges protesters against wearing makeup because its oily consistency can trap gas particles that will then stick to your skin or eyes. Contact lenses are also ill-advised.
The report’s short survey of techniques used to neutralize tear gas once you’re exposed includes washing your face with a water and baking soda solution. Protesters have also used milk and Coca-Cola. But experts warn that science generally doesn’t back these measures, advising that the best solution is to get away from the tear gas cloud into clean air, rinse exposed areas of your body with water and change your clothes.
Keep in mind that tear gas can seriously irritate a person’s airways and make it hard to breathe. Anyone with respiratory issues is especially vulnerable to its effects.
Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist and associate professor at University of California at Riverside, sees a connection between the virus and the protests. “Both covid-19 and structural racism are public health crises which are linked by who acquires and dies from covid-19,” he said. But he is unequivocal about following CDC guidelines during the gatherings.
“While the expected risk of covid-19 while outside is low, it is not zero, and masking and physical distancing can lower the risk,” Brown said in an emailed statement.
Although some protesters may see mitigating against covid-19 or demanding reform as an impossible choice, Pierre says doing both is imperative.
“We ask that you wear masks and distance whenever possible,” Pierre said. “Covid is ravaging our communities.”
Abbady is a freelance writer based in South Florida.