With large crowds congregating all together, speaking all at once, and putting themselves at risk of coming in close contact amid this pandemic, it wouldn't be unreasonable at a glance to say that protests could lead more people catching COVID-19 than if they had stayed at home. Some netizens quickly pointed this out upon seeing pictures of crowds gathered around the Philippines to protest on issues such as the passage of the Anti-Terror Law or the denial by Congress of ABS-CBN's franchise.
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According to National Bureau of Economic Research's recent research done in the USA amid the Black Lives Matter issue, however, there haven't been any links between protests and a rise in COVID-19 cases.
"While the protests themselves were large gatherings that do not match well with social distancing guidelines," the study said, "The protesting population is not the only one that may have had a behavioral response." This behavioral response comes from people who didn't participate in the protests, whether out of "fear of violence from police clashes or general unrest," and instead opted to stay at home when they would have otherwise been out, which the researchers confirmed using anonymous cellphone tracking data.
Infection statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in cities that saw protests were also another point that they studied. As a result of this increase in social distancing from non-protesters, "The protests had little effect on the spread of COVID-19 for the entire population of the counties with protests" in the five weeks since they began.
Another factor mentioned in their conclusion said protesters were capable of "Mitigating the spread of COVID-19 via infection countermeasures such as wearing masks."
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In the context of the Philippines, this research holds up just as well. Protests held in the leadup to the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, and also those held on specific occasions such as Independence Day, the shutdown of ABS-CBN, and President Duterte's State of the Nation Address consistently ensured that health protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines were observed. These were further enforced through reminders by speakers and marshalls on the ground reminding people to maintain a distance of six feet apart from each other, as this drone photo taken at an Independence Day Rally in UP Diliman demonstrates:
The locations of these protests matters, too. According to this Japanese study of 110 COVID-19 cases, people were 18.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19 from a closed and indoor environment in comparison to an open-air environment. Many of the protests in the Philippines have been held in large, outdoor spaces, such as University Avenue in UP Diliman, in Freedom Parks in other cities, and, in the case of ABS-CBN, along Mother Ignacia Avenue, and the science still holds up in these situations as well.
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Beyond the science, however, there's one important thing to be taken with these protests: That human rights and public health are inseparable. People can't keep their distance from others from inside a jail cell, nor can they watch over their health if they've lost their jobs, or aren't aware of the situation around them without the press to keep them informed.
"Human rights are key in shaping the pandemic response," according to this document by the UN. "Responses that are shaped by and respect human rights result in better outcomes in beating the pandemic, ensuring healthcare for everyone and preserving human dignity," they said, "But they (human rights) also focus our attention on who is suffering most, why, and what can be done about it."
"They prepare the ground now for emerging from this crisis with more equitable and sustainable societies, development and peace," the UN concluded.
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