Conversations around protests in a pandemic are very complex conversations. Engaging in such discussions depends on whether you see the cup as half full or half empty. To begin, a syndemic occurs when two epidemics interact to produce worse outcomes than either would do individually. This has been our reality in Nigeria in the last few days. Protests over the scourge of police brutality have spread across the country in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mass gatherings amid a pandemic would worry anyone who has followed the news of the spread of the virus in countries across Europe and the Americas. From a public health perspective, large gatherings such as protests, though held outdoors may increase risk of exposure to infection, especially if protesters are not wearing masks or maintaining physical distancing. Suffice to say; both are quite difficult to do in a chanting crowd. An Additional worrying fact is that the older population though not involved in the protests, may bear the brunt of the onslaught of the virus if it gains a foothold in a multigenerational household, as is common in our clime.
Recent evidence shows that young people may act as transmitters of the virus and have far better outcomes even if infected, especially for those without comorbidities. Emerging scientific questions from this scenario include whether protests increase transmission in areas of active transference and the factors that would contribute to that. Absence of new infections attributable to the protests will be quite surprising.
It is pertinent to say that public health core value is justice – health justice, social justice, gender justice, to mention a few. Therefore, while we wait to see if the protests will increase transmission levels. The protests may also be viewed as a public health intervention that can advance conversations, policies and laws on the injustice that exists not just in policing, but in other spheres that have a significant impact on health in Nigeria.
On a final note, I would suggest that risk reduction strategies such as strict adherence to the COVID-19 protocols, as well as non-use of respiratory irritants such as tear gas to quell protests may help to protect those risking their lives to save their lives.
While we ponder all of this, the waves and billows of the syndemic continue.
Dr. Chidumga Ohazurike
Dr. Chidumga Ohazurike is a Public health physician with interests in health policy and systems research. She is part of the pcl. International and Economic Development ecosystem in Nigeria.