As people protest police violence and mourn George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black lives, health experts expect to see a spike in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks.
Of course, there’s much more work to be done to address and dismantle the systemic racism in the country, and protesting is part of that, pandemic or not. It is also a specific kind of health risk: The coronavirus already disproportionately affects the Black community. Police are using tear gas, which causes people to cough (at the very least). People may be in close contact with others who are not wearing masks. Protesters are also being put in jail, where COVID-19 is spreading rapidly.
“The COVID-19 disparities that have occurred over the last two and a half months along with the tragedies that we’ve seen in Black communities have been really devastating,” Dr. Utibe R. Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, told HuffPost. “There’s a lot of anger, sadness and pain that our communities are experiencing right now, and I think the right to protest is one that we’ve been blessed with ... but it’s made more challenging in this pandemic.”
Below are a few steps you can take to mitigate health consequences as much as possible when you’re protesting, as well as after you have already marched.
How To Protect Yourself If You’re Going Out To Protest
Wear a face mask or covering.
Maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between you and anyone not in your household is imperative for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Obviously, that’s not always possible in a protest setting, Essien said.
Experts do recommend that you wear face masks or face coverings as a way to help lower the potential for spread.
“The majority of folks that I was able to see out this weekend [during protests] were doing that,” Essien said, adding that people who are infected with COVID-19 (even those who are asymptomatic) can spread the illness through speaking, coughing and sneezing. “Face coverings will help protect both yourself and others.”
Carry hand sanitizer.
“Take hand sanitizer to disinfect regularly, especially after touching someone else or surfaces,” Dr. Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship for Keck Medicine of USC, told HuffPost.
To use it properly, rub the sanitizer all over the palms of both hands, as well as the backs of your hands and in between your fingers. Once the product dries completely, it should be fully effective in getting rid of germs.
Avoid touching your face if you can.
There are multiple reasons this is important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends not touching your face to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Your mouth, nose and eyes are all areas where the virus can enter your system, and you could spread it through contact with your hands.
Additionally, authorities are using pepper spray on protesters. A person’s first instinct might be to touch their eyes when this happens, but according to some experts, that can make it worse because it can further spread the substance.
A saline spritz can also help if you come into contact with pepper spray, The Atlantic reported. Safety glasses or goggles are recommended if you have them. Glasses are better than contacts when protecting yourself against the coronavirus as well.
Be careful about eating.
Essien advised “not eating out in the public on a protest trail” as another health precaution.
Consuming something on the go means you’ll have to take off your face covering and likely put your hands near your mouth or face. Make sure you eat before you head out. Additionally, Nanda said to drink plenty of water before you go and be cautious about drinking outside, too. Don’t share food or drinks with others, as that can increase the risk of transmission.
Consider staying home if you feel sick.
If you are showing any symptoms, consider staying home to protect others. Keep in mind that a significant portion of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic and that there’s also a chance you may have been exposed to the virus but aren’t showing any signs. Take precautions where appropriate, if you can.
There are many people who can’t protest, including those who are immunocompromised or living with someone else at high risk of getting sick. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to help. Twitter user Mireille Harper wrote a guide on non-optical allyship, which is especially useful in this case:
Dr. Danielle Hairston, a psychiatrist and the president of the American Psychiatric Association’s Black Caucus, also offered an outline on Twitter on how you can be an ally for racial trauma:
What To Do After Protesting
Continue to take health precautions.
Keep taking the steps to protect your health that you would anyway during the pandemic. Washing your hands, especially once you get home, is extremely vital, Essien said.
“Additionally, wear clothes that you can easily remove and wash immediately, and minimize the amount of jewelry, etc. to reduce the number of surfaces you need to disinfect once you return home,” Nanda said.
Essien also suggested wearing a face mask at home or when you go out elsewhere.
Pay attention to any symptoms that arise.
Monitor your symptoms as best as you can. “If anyone begins experiencing flu-like or COVID-19 symptoms including a cough, fever or chills, shortness of breath, muscle body aches, headaches, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, or diarrhea, contact your medical provider for a consultation,” Nanda said.
And, if you’re able, take social distancing or self-isolation precautions. “If folks can lay low and have someone else go out and get the groceries, gas or other errands like that while watching symptoms, that would be preferred over going out and about in regular life,” Essien said.
Don’t forget your mental health, either.
While this point isn’t directly related to coronavirus, it’s one worth making and repeating. Trauma, stress and burnout from activism is a very real issue. Mental health and physical health are connected, and people are more likely to get sick if they’re run down.
For people in the Black community especially, “we’re really beyond self-care ― it’s about self-preservation and self-protection,” Hairston told HuffPost.
She added that it’s crucial to log off, not watch the news and set boundaries with other people on what you can and cannot tolerate right now. “You have to step away. You have to recognize what is traumatizing, what is stressful, what is anxiety-provoking, what brings depression to you. You have to really know what you can handle,” she said.
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