In Brief

Coronavirus: will protests trigger a second wave and can you march safely?

Research shows BAME demonstrators may be especially vulnerable to Covid-19

Fears are growing that the nationwide US protests over the police killing of George Floyd may trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections. 

And with anger over the US authorities’ response sparking similar demonstrations in cities worldwide, including London, those concerns look set to go global.

The “specter of new coronavirus outbreaks” has prompted “political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge” in Covid-19 cases, reports The New York Times (NYT).

Although many public figures have “affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves”, adds the newspaper, they are urging protesters to follow measures aimed at preventing the further spread of the virus, which has disproportionately impacted BAME communities.

“What we have here is a very unfortunate experiment going on with Covid virus transmission,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told ABC News.

This warning was echoed by medical historian Dr Howard Markel, who likened the protests to the “bond parades” held in US cities during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Markel told the NYT that while the protests are outside, where the risk of infection is usually lower, the demonstrators “are all really close to each other”. 

“Public gatherings are public gatherings - it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting or cheering,” he added. 

So is it possible to protest safely?

Epidemiologists and doctors say taking certain measures can reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus or being infected while demonstrating.

As Vox notes, “the risk will not be zero, but protesters can minimise harm to themselves and others”.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has tweeted the following guidance to protesters in the city:

Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University, has offered similar advice:

The NYT says that some infectious disease experts have been “reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors” and that “many of the demonstrators were wearing masks” and “appeared to be avoiding clustering too closely” .

“The outdoor air dilutes the virus and reduces the infectious dose that might be out there,” said Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “And if there are breezes blowing, that further dilutes the virus in the air.”

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