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Dr. Bryan Johnston, a family physician working on the North Side of Milwaukee, discusses ways protesters can stay safe while protesting during a pandemic.
As healthcare providers working with a largely African American patient population, my colleagues and I have long acknowledged the devastation that the pandemic of racism inflicts upon our patients’ and communities’ health and well-being.
Racial health disparities in our society are staggering and well-described. From this perspective, COVID-19 is simply the latest disease to disproportionately devastate communities of color—following similar patterns in diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, cancer, maternal and child health, mental health problems, accident and injury, and many others. The efforts to intervene against these disparities are also well-described and centuries old.
Our patients and communities do not have the luxury of time for incremental change. Not when people continue to be systematically violated, sickened and killed by their institutions. My colleagues and I support the community in making their voices heard.
We know our community understands, all too well, the importance of infection control during a pandemic. We acknowledge the difficult decision many are making to expose themselves to risk of one pandemic, in order to create change in another. I submit the below recommendations for harm-reduction framework to reduce this risk.
How to safely protest during a pandemic:
1. Do not attend a public protest if you are feeling ill, and especially if you have symptoms of cough, fever, or trouble breathing. Support protests remotely. Get tested for COVID-19 and/or seek medical care.
2. Wear a mask covering mouth and nose at all times. Encourage other protesters to do the same. Do not take off your mask. Avoid touching your mouth or face.
3. Bring along a hygiene kit including hand sanitizer and, if possible, a small first aid kit. Sanitize frequently, and especially after physical contact with other people or objects. If you can, bring enough for others as well.
4. Wear eye protection without holes or vents to reduce infection risk and exposure to chemical irritants.
5. Remember that COVID-19 transmits even in those without symptoms. Attempt to maintain 6 feet of physical distance between yourself and other protesters outside of members of your household. Move in a small group throughout the protest, instead of interacting at close range with many different protesters. Be mindful of the direction you speak, and do not remove your mask when speaking. Loudly singing, chanting, and shouting—especially with mask off—is associated with much higher rates and distance of viral transmission.
6. Follow other protester safety recommendations: bring supplies to persist in various weather conditions for an indefinite amount of time – bring layers, rain protection, sun screen, water, healthy snacks; bring ear plugs; be mindful of where medical support is located; do not go alone and check in frequently with those not present; avoid sharing your direct location or images of protester identity on social media; have an escape plan.
7. Consider being tested for COVID-19 after participation in public protests, even if not experiencing symptoms. To be tested, call your healthcare provider, or seek out free testing sites. Categories of individuals with especially elevated risk of exposure include those who:
a) were less than 6 feet from others chanting, shouting, or not wearing masks,
b) experienced being held or arrested
c) spent time inside a vehicle with others outside of their household
d) spent time in an indoor location with others outside of their household
8. If you are not tested for COVID-19, be vigilant for development of symptoms. They typically develop two weeks after exposure. If possible, limit contact with others—especially the elderly and those with chronic health conditions—until 2 weeks without symptoms have passed. If developing symptoms, get tested and/or seek medical care.
Protesters in this society have long accepted personal risk to their health and safety. In the midst of a pandemic, know that you can take steps to reduce the risk of personal and community harm, while participating in resistance against oppression.
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