Mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, erupted across the U.S. throughout the past week.
After the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell from her High Park apartment on Wednesday while police were inside her home, Toronto followed suit, with thousands protesting against anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism downtown on Saturday, May 30.
As protests spread in cities that continue to see new COVID-19 cases, many are concerned about how to exercise their rights while protecting their health. Physical distancing rules are still in effect and so there’s been plenty of criticism suggesting large protests will only cause the virus to spread. However, city and public health officials have lauded the Toronto protest for remaining peaceful.
The significance of the protests and the importance in fighting against a long history of police violence are important to compel some to join a protest where physical distancing is impossible. In fact, in many ways, racism might be classified as its own public health emergency.
As the pandemic continues, you must individually weigh the risk and make the choice that’s right for you. That means taking additional precautions before you head out the door.
At a press conference on June 1, Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam clarified that if you are going to participate in a protest, “wearing a mask is important, but shouting and making really loud projections can potentially increase the risk.
“You might want to choose other means of showing or messaging, whether it be signage or making noise using other instruments,” she added. “It’s just to consider that shouting and that type of behaviour can potentially project more droplets.”
Since the virus is transmitted through such droplets, being outdoors is preferable to being in enclosed spaces where transmission is more likely.
Still, there’s no denying it’s pretty much impossible to be a part of a mass protest while maintaining a two-metre distance. And with Black people four times more likely to die from the virus, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, the risks are considerable.
What to bring and what not to bring
Over the weekend, the New York City Department of Health and Hygiene tweeted helpful tips to reduce risk: wear a face covering, wear eye protection to prevent injury, stay hydrated, use hand sanitizer, stick to a small group, and keep two metres away from other groups.
In keeping with a smaller group, try to stay within a circle of friends and acquaintances so that you’re aware of who you are near. Keep away from strangers as much as possible.
While some cities have been supporting local protestors by providing masks, like Minnesota, many have to fend for themselves. That means ensuring you have the following on your person: water (not only for drinking but if attacked with pepper spray or tear gas), snacks, ear plugs, a washcloth, Band-Aids and other first aid supplies.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared similar tips in a handy infographic posted to her Instagram on Saturday. It also suggests wearing heat-resistant gloves and nondescript, solid colour, layered clothing, writing down emergency contacts, bringing ID and tying up hair, along with leaving your jewellery at home and keeping your cellphone on airplane mode while disabling data – all in an effort to protect you against both health and legal risks.
How to protect your eyes, face and body
Law enforcement have used rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas at many of the U.S. protests. When it comes to protecting your eyes, don’t wear makeup or contact lenses, which can cause greater irritation if you’re hit with tear gas. Opt for goggles, safety glasses or face shields, which can also protect from rubber bullets, along with umbrellas.
If hit with pepper spray, avoid touching or rubbing your eyes and instead repeatedly and rapidly blink to flush some of it out. Then, wash your eyes with hand soap, dish soap or, preferably, baby shampoo (which you can bring in a travel-size bottle or container with you) to break up the oil, and then rinse with water.
Tear gas, meanwhile, can impact the respiratory system, which is especially susceptible to the coronavirus.
“People just assume it’s safe, [but] it’s important to know that these weapons actually do cause injuries,” explains Dr. Rohini Haar, an emergency physician at the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, in this handy Popular Science guide to tear gas.
Because the active component in tear gas sticks to any moisture it can find, including tears, sweat, saliva or even the grease in your hair, when you become exposed, your eyes will sting, your vision will blur, your airways will become irritated and it will get harder to breathe. The longer you stay in the gas, the worse it will get. This is why it’s important to cover as much of your skin as possible, according to Popular Science. The denser the fabric, the better. It will stick to your clothes, so change as soon as possible.
Cover as much of your head as you can and instead of running in a panic “and taking in big gulps of air, filling your lungs with more tear gas,” move quickly while breathing as evenly as you can.
Weigh the risks
While it’s hard to resist gathering with your community at a time like this, if you’re feeling sick or have shown symptoms of COVID-19, consider staying home. There are plenty of other ways to contribute to the cause, whether by demonstrating online, contacting your elected officials or donating.