Protests and pandemics: Matters of life and death

Images of massed protesters across Canada and the U.S. demonstrating against police brutality have sparked concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19.

Infectious disease specialist Isaac Bogoch says it’s hard to gauge just how bad the COVID-19 fallout from the protests will be. “There’s certainly a risk of infection to be transmitted but it’s hard to quantify what the risk actually is. No one would be surprised that, if you got thousands of people clustered very close together, infection could be spread in a setting like that.”

For thousands, however, protesting police brutality was also a matter of life and death.

Londzo Drury, director of the Toronto-based non-profit CANVAS Arts Action Programs and a protest veteran, says it’s important to understand that COVID-19 and police brutality are both issues that disproportionately affect disadvantaged minority communities. 

“The way COVID-19 affects the global population is impacted by systemic racism. Protesting [for black lives] can’t just sit and wait until the pandemic is over,” Drury says. “I think it’s really important to recognize that COVID-19 and police brutality are both disproportionately affecting, harming, and killing black people. The way COVID-19 affects the global population is impacted by systemic racism.”

Bogoch adds that the risks shouldn’t discourage protesters but they should take measures: “People are exercising their right to protest, and that’s fantastic, [but] this is happening in the midst of a pandemic.”

Toronto’s Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang noted last week the importance of the march but reminded people that it does go against public health guidelines. “Our citizens have the right to peaceful protest and this is a very important matter,” Wang said. However, Wang also called gatherings of this size “high-risk.”

CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta has said the widespread and continuing marches in the U.S. marches will have an impact.

“It is a contagious virus. People being outside, people wearing masks, people moving by each other more quickly may reduce the likelihood of significant exponential growth. But that’s still the concern.”

An early example is Oklahoma State football player Amen Ogbongbemiga, who said in a tweet on Tuesday that he tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a protest.

“Please, if you are going to protest, take care of yourself and stay safe,” Ogbongbemiga tweeted.

Not Another Black Life – the group responsible for the Toronto protest – was acutely aware of the concerns. Ahead of the protest, it put out a series of familiar and easy requirements to ensure that it minimized the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The group handed out six-foot long pool noodles and encouraged protesters to bring their own from home and to march in groups of less than five to maintain physical distance.

Many protesters opted for musical instruments or clapping during Sunday’s march in lieu of the usual shouting to minimize the potential transmission through airborne particles. Not Another Black Life also made mask-wearing mandatory – although not enforced – and had several support staff with masks on hand to distribute.

Drury reminds marchers in tight city corridors where it is sometimes impossible to keep an air gap in a large crowd that staying home and self isolating for 14 days goes a long way to helping slow potential spread.

 “I think that there’s a safe protest option for everybody, regardless of their unique situation. The only truly unsafe option is to stay silent and complicit,” Drury says, “If you’re one of those people who decides it’s not the right choice to physically attend protest, you can protest in other ways.”

Black Lives Matter Toronto noted on its Twitter account that many who would like to attend would be unable. “In the context of a pandemic, we recognize that many of our disabled, chronically ill and immunocompromised community members are not able to attend in-person demonstrations.” They encouraged members of the community to seek out alternative forms of support by donating, coming together, and supporting their community.

While they are not currently planning another march due to concerns surrounding COVID-19, Not Another Black Life assured their supporters through social media: “The movement doesn’t stop here.”