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Protests could lead to a second wave of coronavirus infections, experts say

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By Natalie Huet  & Christopher Pitchers
A crowd chants "Say his name" as George Floyd's casket is wheeled to a hearse after a memorial service at North Central University, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Minneapolis.
A crowd chants "Say his name" as George Floyd's casket is wheeled to a hearse after a memorial service at North Central University, Thursday, June 4, 2020, in Minneapolis.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
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Crowds of demonstrators have been filling the streets of the United States and Europe to demonstrate against racism and police violence, but medical experts are worried that the movement could fuel a second spike of coronavirus infections.

"The first thing I see is that this is a wonderful opportunity for the virus to continue to spread," said John Swartzberg, professor emeritus for infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Public Health.

"People aren't social distancing, and a lot of people aren't wearing masks. And that's not just the protesters, but the police aren't social distancing and are not wearing masks," he told Euronews in a live TV interview.

Huge crowds in cities across the world are a strange sight after months of staying physically apart to stop the spread of COVID-19.

In France, authorities banned demonstrations due to health concerns last week, but protesters showed up nonetheless. Australian officials also condemned this weekend's rallies, calling for people to uphold rules limiting outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 300 people.

Linking a protest to an uptick in infection is not an exact science, but the impact should become clearer in a few weeks’ time, Swartzberg said.

"Usually about two, maybe three weeks after the protests, at least after the protests began, we would see an uptick in the number of cases. That wouldn't prove the protests were the problem, but it would strongly suggest that," he explained.

However, he insists that peaceful protesting remains "terribly important" in societies – and some simple measures should help make sure everyone remains safe.

"The cause is so important, but try to do it in a way that won't spread the virus. If you wear a mask over your face, when you're yelling, it will decrease the number of particles that will go out of your mouth and possibly infect someone else," he said.

"Try the best you can to stay six feet away from other people. If you can do those two things, it will help tremendously. On the other hand, if the police could stop using tear gas and pepper spray, that would help a great deal too."

People can catch coronavirus by touching their eyes with their hands – something tear gas and other irritants will make more likely. These can also prompt people to scatter in a haphazard and disoriented way in which they can easily bump into each other.

Ultimately, it’s up to every individual to behave responsibly and assess how risky the situation is, Swartzberg said.

"You're making a decision both about yourself in terms of what's safe for you but you also have to make a decision about the people around you because you could infect them."

Watch the interview of Prof. Swartzberg with Euronews' Rosie Wright in the video player above.