The death of African-American man George Floyd at the hands of the police has sparked protests throughout the United States and inspired many to reflect on the history of our own police violence against indigenous peoples in Australia and New Zealand.
After thousands of people lined up in New Zealand on Monday, a series demonstrations and vigil are planned in Australian cities this week, and many are wondering: how can we safely protest during a pandemic?
As an infection prevention researcher, I am, of course, genuinely concerned about the prospect of many people gathering. But I also fully understand why people want to go and make their feelings known about racism – not only in Australia and New Zealand, but internationally. This was a clash when we tried to manage COVID-19 and put us in a dilemma.
But I can’t stand and judge people who want to go.
Colleagues in the US who are so touched by what is happening there release their social distance and put themselves and their colleagues in danger by attending protests. For them, it is a personal decision and a risk they are ready to take.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said while “I really understand” why people line up, New Zealand does it social distance rules in place to protect people’s health – and the June 1 march was “a clear violation of them”.
If we have one person, one person in the crowd, just think about what could happen there because we’ve seen it before […] I understand the power of feelings and I understand sentiments and I understand the feelings of urgency felt by everyone. But my job is to take care of the health of the country too.
In Australia, one must remember that many states have strict rules about public meetings and chances are you will violate them if you attend a protest. In Victoria, there is a limit of 20 people in outdoor meetings. For NSW the limit is 10, while in Queensland the limit is 20.
Remember, coronavirus is spread through close contact, so you significantly increase your risk of infection if you are in a large crowd.
All that is said, if you consider attending a protest, here are four things to think about.
1. Are there other ways to show support?
Since I am an infection prevention researcher, working to prevent the spread of COVID-19, I must say this: if any anything in other ways you can show support, besides attending mass meetings – whether it contributes to groups that do a good job, do all kinds of online protests or whatever options you can find – you should consider them.
Think about whether you yourself are at higher risk – by getting older or compromised by your immune system, for example – and whether there are more sustainable ways for you to support the movements you care about.
2. Think about how you will get there
Plan your trip to and from the protest carefully. Avoid busy public transportation – consider riding or riding a bike if possible – and follow the social distance rules if you have to travel by bus, train or tram.
Make sure you bring a hand sanitizer and use it freely. Wash your hands as soon as you get home.
3. If you go, pay attention to social distance
If you are in Australia, download and use it COVIDSafe application. Try your best to observe social distance at any event you attend. That means staying at least 1.5 meters apart from others (or 2 meters in New Zealand) whether you stand in an open space or line up on the street. Remember that a coronavirus is spread by droplets released when people breathe, talk, cough, sneeze, sing or shout close to other people. There are no hugs to show solidarity.
When you gather lots of people and emotions peak, lots of things can go awry very quickly. I am ready to leave the demonstration if I start to worry about the closeness of the people around me. There is a risk that more people will appear than you or the organizer of the anticipated event; if there is a larger crowd than expected, be prepared to make the decision to go home.
A just a mask won’t protect you, they are only one part of the armory and are only useful if you are socially distancing and washing your hands too. If you throw yourself into a situation where you are close to others, a mask will not be enough to protect you or others.
4. Don’t be present if you feel unwell or have COVID-19 symptoms
It should go without saying: truly stay at home, no matter how strong you feel about this problem, if you have anything symptoms, such as a sore throat or cough.
Indigenous Australians are a demographic at risk for COVID-19, as well Māori and Pasifika, so you need to think carefully about the risks you might pose to other people if you show up when you experience symptoms. If there is a small group in one of these protests, and the virus is passed on to the Indigenous community, the impact can be devastating.
If you feel compelled to attend the demonstration, think about what you can do to minimize the possibility of spread, or you will cancel the profits that Australia and New Zealand have made in keeping the spread of the corona virus under control.
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