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How to stay safe from a pandemic while protesting racial injustice

People with signs and masks reading "I Can't Breathe" are seen during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Chicago, Saturday, May 30, 2020. Protests were held throughout the country over the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The protests against racism and police violence, sparked by the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, are happening less than a month after the U.S. began lifting restrictions intended to keep people apart and slow the spread of the coronavirus—a virus that has disproportionately affected Black Americans.

Photo of Neil Maniar

Neil Maniar is the director of the Master of Public Health program and a professor of the practice in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. Photo courtesy of Neil Maniar

“We have the public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and we have the public health crisis of systemic racism,” says Neil Maniar, a professor of the practice and director of Northeastern’s Master of Public Health program. “I think the central question is, how do you protect yourself against one public health crisis, while advocating to address another?”

Despite making up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, Black people have made up 22 percent of coronavirus cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are both over-represented in frontline positions that expose them to potential infection and less likely to have easy access to coronavirus testing. They are also dying from COVID-19 at a rate that is, on average, 2.4 times higher than white people in the U.S. In some areas, the disparity is much greater.

Inequalities in health outcomes are nothing new for Black communities, which have long suffered from higher rates of chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and heart and lung disease. Researchers have linked these differences to systemic issues such as prolonged stress from racism, differences in access to care, and increased exposure to environmental pollutants.

“The COVID-19 death rate among Black individuals is more than double what we’re seeing among whites,” Maniar says. “We know that the COVID outcomes are much worse if you have diabetes or hypertension or heart disease. Unfortunately, we also see significant disparities for each of these chronic diseases among Black individuals. These disparities, including the disparities in COVID-19 deaths, can also be attributed to the effects of systemic racism.”

But Black people are also three times more likely to be killed by police than white people in the U.S. And anyone stepping up to protest one unjust death must also grapple with the risks of the other. 

“Protesting is a really important mechanism for social change, and this is a moment in our nation’s history when social change is so desperately and deeply needed,” Maniar says. “And there are steps people can take to reduce the risk for spreading COVID-19 while they are protesting.”

Stay home if you feel sick

“If you feel like you have a fever, you have a cough, you have any other signs or symptoms, you should not go,” Maniar says. “This is not just about ensuring your own safety, but ensuring the safety and the health of others around you.”

There are other ways to show your support, and you’ll be doing your fellow protestors a favor by keeping them healthy.

Bring your own water and snacks 

It’s important to stay hydrated, but passing food and water between friends is an easy way to spread the virus. Make sure to pack your own and use hand sanitizer before eating or drinking. And, if possible, find some open space before you take off your mask and chow down.

“You don’t want to eat or drink when you’re in a very crowded situation where there isn’t six feet between you and those around you,” Maniar says. 

Walk, bike, or drive to protests

Avoid using public transportation, if you can. Walk, bike, or drive with people in your household. 

“You want to avoid something where you are going to be in a very enclosed space with poor air circulation with lots of other people, whether it’s a bus or a train or another vehicle.”

This also means you’ll have a way home if your city shuts down public transportation.

Wear a mask, carry hand sanitizer, and don’t touch your face

Some of the best precautions you can take at a protest are the same ones you should be taking whenever you go out: carry hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands before and after you touch anything; avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth (which can be extra challenging when you’re emotional); and always, always, always wear a mask. 

“In a protest where people are shouting, people may be singing, those are things that can expel air droplets, not just over some distance, but in a way that the droplets could potentially hang in the air.  And we know that there is a risk of infection through that,” Maniar says. “Wearing a mask is vital.”

Stick with people you trust

Once you get into a crowd, it’s not very likely that you’ll be able to keep six feet between you and the people around you. But if you stay close to people you live with, or people who you know are being careful at home, you can minimize your potential exposure. 

“If you could go with people that you know, that could help a little bit,” Maniar says. “If you know that they themselves are taking the same precautionary measures that you are. And don’t forget, it’s still important for all of you to wear masks.”

Clean up afterward

You and anything you wore to the protest could be carrying the coronavirus, which can survive on some surfaces for multiple days. 

“When you come home from the protests, right away, wash your hands,” Maniar says. “Change and wash whatever clothes you are wearing.”

Monitor your health

Symptoms for COVID-19 can take up to two weeks to appear. Be vigilant if you start to feel sick, and if you normally have contact with someone who is elderly or in a high-risk population, consider taking extra precautions around them.  

“If you start to demonstrate any symptoms, call your health care provider right away,” Maniar says.

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