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Aboriginal flag and protestors
Photograph: Chris Kelly

How do you protest while staying physically distant? We asked an expert

Here are some pointers on staying safe while taking a stand against injustice

By
Divya Venkataraman
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Widespread rallies in the US over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minnesota police have sparked self-reflection here in Australia, too, with renewed calls for an end to police brutality against Indigenous communities. Sydneysiders took to the streets on Tuesday. Another protest calling for an end to all black deaths in custody is scheduled for Saturday, June 6. Given the data on how effective physical distancing has proven to be in curbing the spread of the virus, it might seem surprising to some that protestors would choose to put themselves in a situation that could potentially spread the illness the country has worked so hard to contain. But for those who are choosing to protest, it's often a calculated risk, taken after considering the weight of inaction in a country where Indigenous deaths in custody continue with impunity.

So how can you mitigate the spread of the virus while taking part in a public gathering whose very measure of success on a given day is the number of people it attracts? We talked to the president of the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control and associate professor at Monash University, Philip Russo to find out.

1. Plan your travel

You've resolved to make a concerted effort to distance yourself from people once you arrive at the protest – but it's also important to consider what your journey to and from the protest venue will look like. Russo recommends taking a car or a bike if you can to avoid packed public transport. You should also consider alternative routes to carry you there and home, in case your first choice of transport is too crowded.

2. Practice physical distancing


It's important to stay vigilant about personal hygiene and safety while out in public spaces. When protesting, Russo echoes that oft-heard public health message: stay 1.5 metres away from other people as much as you can in order to prevent spread, wash your hands as soon as you're home, and use liberal amounts of hand sanitiser while you're out. The passion involved in protesting can cause emotional, excited scenes, and it's these flashpoint moments, according to Russo, when social distancing recommendations can collapse. Stay aware of your surroundings, and consider leaving if you can't safely practice distancing from others.

3. Wear a mask, if you want – but understand its limitations

Unlike many other countries, Australia has not adopted widespread mask usage in public spaces. According to Russo, wearing a mask is only "one form of armoury" against the spread of the virus, and won't offer any protection on its own. "When we see pictures of people wearing masks in public, they tend to be 'chin-slings'", says Russo. "The general public doesn't know how to take masks off properly so they don't contaminate themselves." So, unless you've received training in properly putting on and taking off a mask in order for it to be at its most effective, don't expect wearing one to totally protect you from the spread of the virus.

4. Think about how else you can support the cause

If you are immunocompromised, already sick or showing undiagnosed symptoms, or otherwise vulnerable to the effects of the virus, you should not attend a protest rally. However, you needn't feel disempowered; there are other ways to get behind this cause. Here's a list of Indigenous organisations and social justice movements, both Australian and foreign, fighting for racial justice and equality. If you can't physically show up, donate and show your support for those who will.

Taking a principled stand against police brutality and the racial prejudices underpinning it is vital work – and more important than ever in a country which continues to see its custodial death toll rise. However, it's also important to take such a stand in as safe a manner as possible.

An important thing to note, cautioned Russo, was that if protests do lead to a new outbreak within a community, it might hinder the cause by "putting the people that [protestors] are trying to protect at risk." A new cluster of infections could, at its worst, distract from the movement, while adding fuel to the fire of those trying to sway public opinion against the cause – all because of a simple failure to take adequate precautions.

Do your best, Australia. Just remember to stay safe.

Find out how you can support Indigenous and other social justice organisations here.

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