How to protest safely during a pandemic

Matt Hancock told the government’s daily Coronavirus press conference that people should remember the rules, that they “should not attend large gatherings, including demonstrations, of more than six people”.

As Hancock emphasises, we’re still at a stage where the official lockdown public health guidelines prohibit gatherings of more than six people and encourage people to wash hands regularly, cough into their elbow or a tissue and to not touch their face. Distancing rules of keeping two metres apart also still apply. Organisers of the protests (some which are not part of the official UK arm of Black Lives Matter movement) have asked participants to observe distancing as much as possible.

The Met Police have said that while they’ll be respecting people’s right to protest, they’re urging people to cooperate with them in order to ensure everyone’s safety and have said they fear serious disorder if lockdown rules were fully enforced at the protests.

This weekend many people in the UK will be thinking about taking part in peaceful anti-racism demonstrations to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to stand up for justice following the death of African American man George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis last month. Although this happened in America it has also put a spotlight on the injustices black people face in the UK on a daily basis such as Belly Mujinga, the British train guard who died of Covid-19 in April 2020 after it was alleged that a man spat in her face while she was working in London.

Star Wars actor John Boyega was among those powerfully voicing the litany of lost potential and the pain endured by the community during a demonstration in Hyde Park, London this week. More demonstrations are planned.

But while people very much want to engage with and show support for Black Lives Matter, the issue of health and safety during a pandemic and social distancing is still very much a part of our day to day reality in the UK. Indeed, health secretary, Matt Hancock, has warned people against joining Black Lives Matter protests this weekend, pointing out that “we’re still facing a health crisis and coronavirus remains a real threat”.

So how can we demonstrate while also taking our health and the safety of those around us into account? What are the main things you need to know before you take part in a protest during a pandemic? We asked a two medical professionals for expert advice:

Are you vulnerable or at risk?

Firstly, ask yourself if you are vulnerable or at risk. “If you are high risk then I would advise not joining in with the protests, this is a sure-fire way to increase chances of infection and could potentially be fatal,” says Dr Henrique Pachecom, a GP and medical advisor at Doctors4u. If you are not at risk, the next question is do you live with others who are?

“Most people are fortunately unlikely to become very unwell with Covid-19, but even if you haven’t got symptoms, you can still spread the infection on to others who are more at risk, such as family members you may have contact with at home or protestors that are more vulnerable,” says Dr Claudia (Carmaciu) Pastides, a General Practitioner Medical Copywriter at Babylon.

Do you have Covid-19 symptoms?

If you are feeling unwell or have symptoms of Covid-19, don’t attend. Stay home. When attending a protest during a pandemic you not only need to think about how you protect yourself from getting Covid-19 but also ask how you can keep the risk of spreading the virus as low as possible.

“If you have any symptoms you should be staying away from highly populated areas where the virus could potentially transmit across to others and increase chances of a second wave,” says Dr Henrique.

Ask yourself: Are you putting yourself and others in danger of becoming ill? Do you have symptoms? People should not attend the protest if they are feeling unwell. “If you have a fever, a new cough or a change to your sense of smell or taste. Even if you are not feeling unwell in yourself with those symptoms, you must self-isolate at home. The risk of spreading an infection to others in crowds, such as at a protest, is likely to be high,” Dr Claudia adds.

Plan your journey

Once you have assessed the situation and are well enough to attend, the next step is to make a plan for how you are going to get there. Let family or friends know of your whereabouts in case you end up in any danger or get injured. General protest guidelines advise people not to attend solo. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to arrange to meet a friend there at an agreed and safe meeting point and plan your journey with safety in mind.

“Try to avoid taking public transport to the protest. If you can, walk or cycle. Pushing a bicycle along at a protest may also help you to maintain some social distancing between yourself and others,” says Dr Claudia.

Wear a mask

Under normal circumstances concealing your face at a public demonstration is illegal in some parts of the world. But during a pandemic the medical advice is to wear protective equipment. Both doctors we contacted advised wearing a mask. “If you are able to get yourself a properly fitted mask with a filter that is tight on the face, that would be ideal. If not, a normal material mask or a scarf tied around the face should work.

Ensure the mask or scarf fits snug around your face. You will be tempted to pull it down to join in with chants and shouting however keep the mask on at all times if you can, ” advises Dr Henrique.

“An outdoor protest is likely to be safer than an indoor one and although the evidence suggests that a face covering is not going to stop you from catching COVID-19, we do know it may reduce you spreading COVID-19 to others, for example if you are infected and haven’t yet developed symptoms. If you’re going to use a face covering, make sure you know how to use it effectively,” adds Dr Claudia.

Pack hand sanitiser

Bring hand sanitiser with you to the protests to ensure that you can keep your hands as clean as possible at all times as access to soap and water is likely to be very limited. “Chances are you will be rubbing up close to others and could touch them, if you then bring your hands to your face virus particles could potentially enter your respiratory system through a facial orifice. I would also advise wearing gloves to keep hands free from any possible transmission,” says Dr Henrique.

“In particular, wash your hands straight away if you’ve had to touch someone else or something that isn’t your own personal property, before eating, before touching your face and as soon as you get home.” adds Claudia.

Stay hydrated

Be prepared and drink lots of water. The best way to protect yourself against other risks while protesting is to be prepared. Doctors advise drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated. “Drink plenty of water throughout the day to keep liquids up and to support the immune system.” says Dr Henrique.

It’s also helpful to pack a number of essential items such as tissues, sun lotion, a sun hat, layers of clothing, a plastic bag to put a used face covering in, a spare face covering to use as a replacement if needed and spare clothes if you think you’ll need them.

Social distance as much as possible

Social distancing rules can be much more challenging to observe at a protest. The evidence shows that the virus spreads more easily when people are near one another for prolonged periods of time. So it’s really important to try to follow advice on social distancing to the best of your ability and distance as much as possible. “This may be harder if you are right in the middle of protests, so if you can stick to the outer areas and side-lines to ensure that you are not close to anyone.

If you can, participate from your apartment or car window. Avoid sharing food, beverages or sign sharing or anything else unless it’s an absolute emergency.” says Dr Henrique. “Try not to touch other people and aim for a minimum of 1 metre between yourself and others, but preferably 2 metres to further reduce the risk of catching and spreading covid19,” says Dr Claudia.

Use signs

The virus spreads through infected droplets being coughed, sneezed or talked out of an infected person’s airway. The range that these droplets can travel is wide. Research indicates that droplets infected with COVID-19 can travel as far as up to 18 feet after someone sneezes, coughs or even speaks. For that reason it’s advisable to make the most out of signs to get your message across rather than chanting.

“Talking, shouting or yelling loudly will most likely mean that more respiratory droplets will be expelled from people’s mouths, so try to put a good distance between you and anyone who is chanting, especially if they are unmasked.” says Dr Henrique.

“Of course, covering sneezes and coughs in a tissue or elbow is advisable, but also try to keep your distance from anyone that might be shouting or talking very loudly. Likewise, if you are shouting, chanting or singing, try to keep at least 2 metres distance between yourself and others. Standing side-by-side with others is also a better option than face-to-face,” adds Dr Claudia.

Be vigilant

While at a protest it might be easy to get caught up in the moment and forget that we are still in the midst of a pandemic. “While protesting but it’s important to remember to keep in mind at all times to stay safe and aware that Covid-19 is still out there,” says Dr Henrique. “If you get injured or need medical help, find a first aid point or seek medical assistance,” advises Dr Claudia.

Wash your clothes

Once you’ve travelled safely back home doctors advice is to throw all your clothes into a washing machine asap. “If you can’t wash your clothes at home then put them in a tied-off plastic bag until you can wash them.” says Dr Claudia. “There is no need to self-isolate for 14 days after attending a protest.

Keep an eye out for any symptoms (in particular a new cough, fever or change to sense of smell or taste) and if you develop these symptoms, self-isolate straight away and request a COVID-19 test.”

And remember, if you cannot attend the demonstrations there are still plenty of other ways that you can support by sharing resources and links to funding pages where you can donate to a BLM charity.

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