SONA 2020

No SONA 2020 rallies? Global marches show how to safely mobilize during pandemic

Sofia Tomacruz
The DILG is concerned that rallies during President Duterte's SONA can become vectors of the coronavirus

As citizens were preparing for protest actions in time for President Rodrigo Duterte’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27, the Department of the Interior and Local Government issued a directive to local government, warning them against allowing physical rallies.

As a result, the Quezon City backtracked on its promise to allow mobilizations as long as they ensured that health protocols would be in place.

Still, organizers are bent on pushing through with their plans, emphasizing that the DILG’s concern about rallies being potential vectors of the coronavirus is largely unfounded. (LIST: SONA 2020 protests, activities)

They pointed out that protesters were able to stage Independence Day demonstrations without causing a surge in infections.

The Philippines is not the first to see protests take place under quarantine measures. When looking for some answers to questions of safety, one can look to the experience of other countries, where people have mounted mass gatherings without posing major health risks. 

Public health experts in the United States, where weeks of anti-racism marches have taken place, say it is inescapable that gatherings will lead to some cases. The risk of spreading the coronavirus cannot be reduced to zero. 

But advice from experts and protests in other countries have also shown there are ways to minimize chances of spreading the virus to others. Here are some key takeaways. 

1. Protest actions are done outdoors.

The New York Times wrote on July 1 that epidemiologists were bracing for a surge in new coronavirus cases after thousands filled the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd since the end of May. As of July 1, officials in the city said “we have not seen that.” 

One factor behind this was that protests largely took place outdoors, where transmission is less likely to occur compared to being indoors. 

The virus, primarily spread through droplets coming from an infected person, is more quickly dispersed and carried away than when it would be in a room with poor ventilation. 

Texas State’s College of Health Professions associate dean Rodney Rhode told Healthline, “In general, being outdoors does help, due to fresh circulation of air and the antiviral effects of the UV in sunlight, as well as the virus’s fragile nature with desiccation.”

Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, wrote in an opinion article in the Guardian that preliminary evidence also suggested, “If you’re going to be in a crowd, a mobile one is better than a stationary one.”

Both experts, however, emphasized that this doesn’t mean there is no chance of infection. 

“None of these three aspects will protect you from infection definitively – but together they offer a modest level of risk reduction,” Jha said. 

2. Protesters wear masks.

Public health experts have this measure on their list of ways to reduce harm during protests. Since the pandemic erupted, a wave of new research has shown evidence that wearing face masks reduces the risk of spreading coronavirus infection. 

The Department of Health in the Philippines has repeatedly emphasized that everyone should wear masks when outdoors, as this can reduce the risk of transmission by up to 85%.

To wear it properly, make sure the masks covers your nose and mouth, and remember to keep it on all the time.

(READ: What you can do to stay safe during the coronavirus pandemic)

Protesters are advised to avoid shouting during rallies since this can spread droplets. Instead, public health experts urge them to carry signs or noise makers. 

3. Physical distancing is emphasized.

Maintaining distance between participants can be difficult during protests, and this is where much of the fear is founded, but public health experts say physical distancing should still be observed as much as possible. 

This means keeping a distance of at least 6 feet from the person next to you. It also includes avoiding handshakes, high fives, or other forms of contact with other people. 

4. Those with symptoms stay home.

Advice from doctors and public health experts reiterate that one should not go out if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most common symptoms for COVID-19 are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. 

In the wake of global protests against racism, the WHO said: “We encourage all those protesting around the world to do so safely…. We remind all people to stay home if you are sick and contact a health care provider.” – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.