The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has sparked a global outcry for justice, with protests in all 50 states and in many countries across the globe.
“As a mother of a black son, and the wife of a black husband, it’s really frightening,”says Dr. Ashley Denmark, MD, an internist at the Missouri Baptist Medical Center and founder of the Project Diversify Medicine campaign. “We all have experiences. We all have stories. And we feel like we have to use our voice and advocate at this level because we cannot allow for this to continue to happen. It’s petrifying.” Dr. Denmark adds that she’s asked her husband to stop running in their community out of fear for his safety.
But…how are you supposed to protest social injustice and systemic racism in the middle of a pandemic without putting yourself at risk?
Dr. Denmark reminds that taking action can mean many things, beyond joining in-person protests. “I advise people to stay at home to limit the spread of COVID-19 and find other ways to advocate,” she says. “The first one is voting this November and creating grassroots movements to advocate for making policy changes. Then transition to protest, if they must.”
If you feel compelled to protest right now, Dr. Denmark says it’s important to wear a mask and sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Below, she offers some more guidance and context on navigating this unchartered territory as safely as possible.
How do you expect protests will affect COVID-19 outbreaks moving forward, particularly in black communities?
I think it’s going to be a bad outcome, but I’m hoping for the best. I think there’ll be a spike in COVID-19 cases. I’m concerned that because of the protests we are going to be at an even greater risk, especially when I don’t see a lot of people with masks on.
I understand our frustration and that we’re tired of the injustices, but we have to make sure we are protecting ourselves, otherwise we’re going to see a huge spike in cases. Our community is already saturated with COVID-19 cases. And while younger people may not have as many adverse outcomes, they’re still at risk. They’re not exempt from dying of COVID-19.
They also may be carrying it home to that vulnerable mother or grandmother or grandfather at home who may be at a larger risk of death. So we know that they’re putting their family at risk by not protesting smarter and strategizing and organizing better to bring about that change. It’s good that people are becoming more aware and standing up and coming together, but we have to keep ourselves safe.
So while you’re out there, try social distancing as much as you can. Make sure you’re wearing your mask. Otherwise, I fear that this is going to have a major blowback in our community with COVID-19 cases rising because people out there protesting don’t seem to be worrying about it now. And I understand the anger, but we have to be safe.
What should people who want to protest keep in mind to minimize their COVID-19 risk while doing so?
You must social distance as much as you can. And wear a mask. By doing those things, you not only protect yourself, but you’re also protecting your community. People are out there yelling and shouting and being passionate without a mask on, and I fear it won’t be good in the end.
And remember: Any time you touch your mask, wash your hands. Anything you’re touching while you’re out protesting can possibly infect you or someone at home, so it’s better to always err on the side of caution than not.
Will wearing a fabric mask protect you during a protest?
Just wearing a surgical or a homemade mask doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID-19 itself, but it can prevent you from spreading it if you have it. And that’s the problem right now, a lot of people are not masking.
If you’re out and about, be very careful. I’ve seen people on TV touch their mask and then touch other people, and I’m like, “Oh, don’t do that!”
If you touch your mask and you need to touch something else, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. And, it’s okay to carry a little hand soap—plus your hand sanitizer—with you and use a bottle of water to wash your hands as frequently as possible.
Is there anything you should do beforehand to prepare to safely protest?
Just have your mask ready and be smart. And remember, any time you touch your face mask, sanitize or wash your hands.
What about afterward?
Before you enter your home, decontaminate in your garage or anywhere outside the house—just like a doctor would, just like I would.
You should take your shoes off and wipe them down with antibacterial cleaner or sanitizer. If you can, remove all your clothing, put it in a bag, and put it in a washer and wash with hot water.
If you can’t take your clothes straight to the washer, keep them in the bag until you can get them washed. Leave your shoes outside the home before you enter, too. After you take off your face mask, wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer.
Then you need to thoroughly wash your hair because COVID-19 can travel on there as well.
Do you recommend people get tested for COVID-19 after protesting?
Those who are having symptoms of novel coronavirus (dry cough, high fever, shortness of breath) should definitely be tested, even if they think the symptom is something common. If you think it’s just a dry cough because it’s allergy season, you should get tested. If you have a fever, get tested.
And if you know you’re out there and you’re not social distancing and you’re not wearing your mask, get tested because you may be an asymptomatic carrier.
What have you personally felt comfortable doing to protest, as a medical professional right now?
Even though I’m not out there marching because of my job as a clinician, I’m protesting in my own way for the community. I’m trying to get more black and brown people into medical school. So I’m investing my time in working one-on-one and in groups to help people get their medical school applications in place.
What we’ve realized with this pandemic is that there are not enough black and brown doctors, doctors that look like those people struggling the most with the virus, in the profession.
Research has shown that when black and brown people go through medical school, they often go back to their communities and open up clinics and serve those who really need healthcare. If we had more black and brown doctors, we’d have more people to help the black communities get through COVID-19 right now because they’d have more access to clinics within their reach.
You’ve posted on your account and on @projectdiversifymedicine that racism is a public health issue; could you explain what you mean by this?
Some people don’t even have access to food and water. So now we’re unhealthy. Now, we are in places with poor education. Now we can’t learn the proper education, in general, let alone the education we need to properly take care of our bodies or to get a good job. Basically, we don’t have the education we need to take care of our bodies. We don’t have the education we need to get a good job.
So with no good job—or a job with the lowest wage possible because of improper education—we can’t get the health insurance we need to get to the doctor we need, if any at all. So with all of that, we are now in a situation where we have poor health because of the racism we faced.
What else do you think is important for people to keep in mind right now?
As African Americans, we have a harder time getting to that American dream because that path isn’t really for us. I know it, going from a dishwasher to a doctor myself. My journey was harder, like most in the black community. From the beginning, our job is to “make it.”I really hope that as Americans we can all come together and unite, and really realize that we are all the same.
I also want more black and brown people in medical school, in white coats. I’m the first African American female internist physician at my hospital in its 130-year history. I’m one of one, like a pair of Italian shoes! The fact that I’m the first anything, for blacks, it’s really frightening. And that says we’re not doing enough.
America needs to be more aware of the need to diversify the medical field. I promise COVID-19 would not have been that bad if a lot of minorities had access to healthcare. They would have had more access to their hypertension checks and diabetes checks within their communities. So we have to make sure we’re doing the front-end work to make sure that our communities have the same access as everyone in this country, and I believe having more black and brown doctors is a greater opportunity for that access.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
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