I want to show my support for the Black Lives Matter movement by marching, but I’m worried about COVID-19. Do you have any advice for protesting safely during a pandemic?
Our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Erik Vanderlip, weighs in with some advice:
That’s an excellent question.
Staying safe and supporting our Black and African American communities are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Police brutality and racism are lethal public health issues that both predate and contribute to COVID-19. Embracing the struggle for racial justice should engender safer, healthier communities for all of us.
The challenge is that, yes—right now, we are in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic. We are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases within the communities we serve. As we show our support to Black Lives Matter, we can’t sweep the threat of COVID-19 under the rug. In reality, ignoring safety concerns threatens African Americans as much, if not more, as communities of color are more likely to bear the brunt of our shared disregard for public health and safety. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that racial and ethnic minority groups experience disproportionate risk of illness and death from COVID-19.
There are several things you can do to protect yourself and others if you’ve chosen to show solidarity by protesting or marching. Firstly, don’t go if you’re having symptoms! There is a very real risk of asymptomatic transmission, but the presence of COVID-19 symptoms likely means you’re more infectious. So, if you’re having symptoms, stay home, take care of yourself, and limit others’ risk. As a reminder, the symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, nausea, loose stools, generalized aches and pains, and the recent loss of taste or smell.
Secondly, wear a mask in public. Prioritize large-scale outdoor gatherings over indoor gatherings, as the risk of transmission is lower in open-air environments.
Health experts are urging protesters not to sing and shout to reduce the threat of person-to-person transmission. However, I understand how some of these tips can be difficult to follow. If you’re angry and frustrated, you want to express that feeling—and loudly! Because shouting especially raises the risk of transmission, consider ways to either magnify your voice with noise makers or instruments. These can help amplify your message while reducing shouting and vocalizing.
Finally, don’t forget to wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands. Bring along a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol-and-gel based. Use it frequently, and avoid touching your face. Masking should also help deter face-touching. Consider using the restroom before going out in public to minimize group bathroom breaks. Avoid sharing drinks, cups, vape pens, pieces of pizza, and water bottles. If you want to wear gloves, go for it—but you may have to change them frequently. Gloves keep the virus from getting on your hands, so if you’re touching your face with your gloves, there’s not much point to wearing them! And remember, gloves are no substitution for proper hand hygiene. You still need to wash your hands after you take the gloves off.
There are other safety concerns to keep in mind while that aren’t related to COVID-19. We’ve seen many protest-related injuries in our clinics, including sprains, strains from long walks, and burns. When attending a protest or march, wear protective clothing such as long sleeves, pants, and comfortable shoes. Wear things you feel comfortable in that cover, but aren’t too restrictive, in case you come into contact with some hazardous materials.
If you don’t feel safe attending protests or marching, remember that there are many ways to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Meaningful action can take the form of more than marching or protesting. It can mean individual volunteering. It can mean writing a letter to your local representative, signing petitions, joining a task force, donating money, time, expertise, or other resources to groups also fighting for Black Lives Matter.
The best gift you can give a cause is your attention and time. We all have a part to play in the fight for racial justice. While our roles might look a little different, it doesn’t make them any less important.
Remember what you’re at the protest for. Both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter are marathons rather than sprints—don’t sacrifice both by burning yourself out. We’re going to need everyone’s efforts in the coming months and years to see our communities achieve the health and safety they deserve.