#EndSARS protests in the period of COVID-19

Gathering outdoors would be good for all of us, for so many reasons beyond protesting. In this article by SADE OGUNTOLA, experts explain why protests are superspreading events for coronavirus as individuals refrain from the use of facemasks and social distancing.

For more than two weeks, Nigeria has been rocked by protests by many young people against police brutality. The protests began in response to a video that circulated online showing a man being beaten, apparently by members of the police Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS).

After months of curtailing the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of coronavirus, people have taken to the streets in thousands to protest against police brutality and corruption. But the gatherings have some people worried about a spike in coronavirus infections—especially given the close interactions of the protesters and non-compliance to social distancing, hand washing and wearing of face masks.

In April, the World Health Organisation (WHO) had asked that all countries with community transmission to seriously consider postponing or reducing mass gatherings that bring people together and have the potential to amplify disease and support the recommended best practice of physical distancing.

With time, studies on the protesters will tell of any increase in cases of coronavirus infections from the protests, said Dr Greg Ohihoin, a clinician and training coordinator at the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Lagos.

Although scientifically it is proven that close proximity and non-use of facemasks favour increases the risk of transmission anywhere people don’t comply with COVID-19 prevention recommendations,

Dr Ohihoin, however, stated that there is a possibility of a spike in coronavirus infection cases because it is scientifically proven that close proximity of individuals and non-use of facemasks favour an increase in the risk of transmission if people don’t comply with COVID-19 prevention recommendations.

Executive secretary, Nigerian Academy of Science, Dr Oladoyin Odubanjo said it is expected that there will be cases of coronavirus infections from the protests despite situations on the ground suggesting government’s fatigue on testing and treatment of individuals with COVID-19.

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“The government is not doing as much as it was doing before on COVID-19 testing, prevention and treatment. That portends danger. So barring any unforeseen situation, we expect a spike in cases” he stated.

Without adequate testing, it may be somewhat difficult to disentangle cases directly arising from the protests from those from other reasons like the opening up of society in general.

Professor David Olaleye, a virologist at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan, described the protest as “superspreading” events from the spread of coronavirus.

“All you need are few coronavirus-positive individuals among the whole crowd of protesters and within a short period of time, it will spread. It has happened before. A recent one is the Rose garden meeting by US president and as the last count, almost 40 people of the attendees at the event turned positive for coronavirus”.

Moreover, the virologist said since the protesters are predominantly young people usually with mild or moderate forms of the disease and without symptoms, they wouldn’t be aware that they were spreading the infection further.

Professor Olaleye added, “we may be in for a bigger explosion afterwards the protests. It takes about three to five days after exposure for an infection to be fully established and then another one week for symptoms to start manifesting, so people may not know immediately now.”

He, also expressed concern that since many of the protesters will soon be returning to higher institution campuses and others will be going back to their workplaces, gains made on stemming the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria might be reversed over time.

According to Professor Olaleye, since coronavirus is novel and a lot of people that are infected do not have symptoms, it is advisable that those who want to be part of the protest make sure that they protect themselves by wearing appropriate facemasks.

However, Professor Phillips Olatunji, a consultant haematologist stated that though the protest might end up increasing new coronavirus infection cases, this may not be obvious since the protestants are predominantly young people with strong immune systems and are not sick.

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According to him, “unless there is a serial screening of the crowd, you may not see a reflection of the positivity rate in the country. But it is only by testing for the antibodies to the virus that you will know who might have had the virus.

“Nowadays, it is only when people fall sick that we begin to suspect coronavirus.  They will overcome the virus and continue to look well because the majority of them are not having any symptoms.”

Professor Olatunji cited that a school in Lagos that had 181 students that tested positive for coronavirus.

“The first index case presented with fever and was treated for malaria. Another one became ill and went home and was positive for COVID-19.  That led to the screening of the students and they now found 181 positive cases in the school.  Without the screening, we may not have known,” he added.

Meanwhile, Oyo State Chairman of Nigerian Medical Association(NMA), Dr Ayotunde Fasunla, who addressed journalists at the association’s secretariat, noted that the protesting youth had been on #EndSARS/ #EndPoliceBrutality rally for several days with flagrant disobedience to the COVID-19 protocols.

According to him, while the struggle is just, the development comes with attendant danger for the country as no nation or tribe is immune to COVID-19.

“As doctors, knowing very well that COVID-19 is very well with us, during rallies like this, we know that gathering together could worsen the pandemic which we had worked tirelessly to bring down. We advise protesters that while trying to make their grievances known to the government, they should as well, observe the laid down protocols.”

The chairman of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, is concerned that #EndSARS protesters are transmitting the coronavirus and constituting a danger to themselves and their families.

While speaking during a media briefing on Monday, he appealed to protesters to be careful because mass gatherings create a potential opportunity for them to be infected and pass the virus on to their loved ones at home.

However, some data show that the COVID-19 infection rate among protesters has been remarkably low, not an avalanche, where the protests have been held outdoors, and for the most part, people have been wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

Analysis of 28 COVID-19 “superspreading events” around the globe revealed commonalities: all were indoors, and involved people without masks talking face-to-face, singing, or sharing a meal. Studies have shown that virus-laden droplets can travel six feet, so wearing masks and maintaining that distance is critical.  A recent study of contact tracing for new infections also showed that most transmissions occurred between people interacting indoors for 15 minutes or more.

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