Can people really protest safely during a pandemic?
It would be irresponsible for any scientist or physician to discount the risk that comes of having a large crowd of people gathered in one space. Both global anti-racism protesters and the protesters in the recent anti-terrorism bill rallies may have tried to maintain a degree of social distancing and observed the minimum of wearing face masks, but as we’ve been told ad nauseam since the beginning of the pandemic, no strategies are bulletproof.
For one, standing six feet apart is a mere guide to help us remember that distance is necessary; it is not an absolute number beyond which one is safe. For another, even the highest standard of personal protective equipment is no guarantee, and the average protester is wearing only a cloth mask. Lastly, while the likelihood of transmission from an asymptomatic co-protester is small, the risk remains. In short, there is no way that one can protest and remain sure that they won’t contract the coronavirus, which remains a real threat despite the relaxing of lockdown measures.
However, as the Black Lives Matter movement shows, there is more than one definition of “safe,” and to vulnerable groups, the need to protest can be just as essential as stay-at-home measures. This is not the space to list the name of every victim of racial profiling and police brutality. The fact that so many of those perpetrators remain safe in the protection of institutional racism harkens to the experience of many in the Philippines. We have our own list of people who were killed, brutalized, or unjustly incarcerated, and the perpetrators of those crimes continue to walk free, enjoying a sort of impunity I never thought I would live to see. The average Filipino who stays at home, washes their hands, and consistently wears protective equipment outside may feel safe from the coronavirus, but the hungry, desperate, or angry Filipino who steps a single toe out of line or gets on the wrong side of the police has no such feeling of safety.
At the heart of the matter lie the social determinants of health: the fact that health isn’t merely freedom from illness, but the result of factors like race, socioeconomic status, education, access to proper health care and nutrition, and adequate support from government and society. Racial tensions and killings of black people—including an actual lynching—is just as much a determinant of health as the coronavirus, so that even the World Health Organization hasn’t dared to discourage these protests: a statement by the WHO director-general all but expressed support for the protests, although with the caveats of observing basic anti-COVID measures.
I don’t mean to reduce the experience and gravity of racism into a single issue, but our recent local protests represent something of the same alarm: a fear of government impunity, an outcry against institutional cruelty and incompetence we have been forced to witness since the start of the pandemic, and even before that. In the end, while infection with coronavirus remains a real threat with these gatherings, it can be argued that the right to protest for equal treatment and police/government accountability may also be important for a nation’s safety.
So what can we do, apart from actually addressing the cause for the protests? Those cautiously monitoring the consequences of protests have advocated for COVID-19 testing after demonstrations, or for avid contact tracing, neither of which appear feasible locally. For both protesters and law enforcers, as the WHO has advised, conscientious physical distancing, handwashing and wearing of masks should be observed. Others have advised that protests, if they should happen, should take place in wide, open spaces, and that protection of protesters’ rights is actually a part of anti-coronavirus measures: those incarcerated in small, tight spaces with others risk infection, and those detained will have poor access to sanitation. It may take a few weeks to see the effects of protests on coronavirus cases here and abroad. For now, we can only advise constant vigilance.
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