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Protesting In A Pandemic: Does Social Justice Outweigh Social Distance?

Two men look on at protestors in San Antonio on May 30.
Kathleen Creedon | Texas Public Radio

In times of civil unrest or social upheaval, protests seek to raise awareness for a message or cause in solidarity with others. Crowds of people seeking to alter the status quo march in close proximity, often chanting, shouting and singing -- none of which are conducive to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

Groups gathering to protest both protective shutdown orders that had negative economic fallout and systemic racism spurred by the death of George Floyd do so in direct contradiction to social distancing guidelines to help stamp out the novel coronavirus.

In the anti-lockdown protests, the use of facial coverings largely went against participants' ethos. Those who have gathered to rally against police brutality have mostly worn face masks, but is that even enough? 

Racial justice demonstrations also put participants' health at risk in ways unrelated to COVID, as even nonlethal and less lethal crowd-control weapons utilized by police can cause significant physical harm. Rubber and wooden bullets fired at close range can disfigure victims. Tear gas and other chemical irritants can cause severe reactions in people with underlying health conditions.

Rising temperatures pose an additional threat to all protestors in Texas, where the scorching summer sun and temperatures upwards of 90 degrees can cause dehydration, exhaustion and even heatstroke. People with underlying conditions are also more susceptible to heat-related health issues.

What do we know so far about how the virus spreads and the likelihood of asymptomatic transmission? Can people protest in a pandemic and still maintain their health?

For those protesting police brutality and racial injustice, are those threats greater than the risk of contracting COVID-19 -- a virus known to potentially cause severe health complications and even death?

What can participants do to decrease their risk of exposure at these types of gatherings? Should people with existing health problems avoid protests or take extra precautions? Is it possible to safely protest in a pandemic?

Guests:

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*This interview was recorded on Thursday, June 11.

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Kim Johnson is the producer for Texas Public Radio’s live, call-in show The Source. She is a Trinity University alum with bachelor’s degrees in Communication and Spanish, and a Master of Arts Degree from the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.