On Staying Safe in Protests, Erasing Covid Restrictions, and Brighton’s ‘Mask Up’ Group.

This interview is the first in a 4-part investigative series covering: Mask Up and the need for safety in protesting, the Kill the Bill movement and its importance, personal accounts of protesting over lockdown, and the history of protests and the protests movements of today. I hope to shed light on why so many protest movements have started in recent years, to discover why they matter to so many people and help to emphasize the messages behind each group.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have been tracked and traced and have been forced against their privilege to self-isolate after being in contact with… drum roll please – our newly appointed, Covid-carrying, Health Secretary: Sajid Javid. This comes the very same day that the rest of the country has been released from the safety measures that aim to prevent this sort of situation from occurring in the first place…. Although with the swarms of people on Brighton beach this weekend, you might never have known they were in place.

So people can gather in their numbers again, legally, and apparently without safety rules in place for the protection of all. What does this mean for future protests? Have the protests that went on during lockdown been Covid safe? I spoke to Hansaka Seneviratne, a man of many many words, and originator of the Brighton group Mask Up – a group which started out providing masks and hand sanitiser to various local Brighton protest movements throughout the lockdown, but which has now evolved into so much more. 

Han spoke with eloquence, passion and the sureness of someone who knows their shit. We ended up chatting for hours, and I couldn’t help but be inspired to continue to research, to find more people, and keep writing… Among the topics we discussed were solidarity and Covid-safety in protests, the events that sparked movements: George Floyd and Sarah Everard’s deaths, recent legislation and what that means not just for protestors, but for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller peoples way of life – and why right now is the perfect moment for all movements to come together under one cause; more than ever we are all facing the same systemic injustices. 

[Interview took place 9th July 2021, Part 2 will be published later this week. I have, to the best of my abilities fact checked and found sources for figures Hansaka quoted to me. I have added supplementary information in large italic print where appropriate.]

What sparked the idea of Mask Up? 

Mostly, to fill the need for a group like us. Mask Up is a group that is apolitical, we may have personal opinions or criticisms that we would like to share just as much as any protest movement – but we are not here to be motivated by that. We support the right to protest, but most importantly we follow the evidence base that wearing masks, using hand sanitiser, keeping a safe distance from one another enables people to continue to protest in a way that is safe – and that is a benefit for everyone. 

After the widespread BLM protests, I had this inner conflict. On one hand I could see the risks of spreading Covid. On the other; I saw why people were protesting, and I understood that no one has the right to say how people should react to such deep oppression. 

As well as the need for keeping people Covid-safe during protests, there is a need for the protest movement to be heard, and for their message to be seen for what it is. Right now, and particularly last year, Covid informs the context of everything we are doing, everyday. I understood that during that time the media would not let unsafe practices at protests go unchecked – and nor should they: no matter how righteous your cause, it’s a valid critique. Mask Up tried to fill this need – by providing masks, sanitisers and advising people on safe distancing practices, protests could go ahead, and be safe, in practice and in the eyes of the media. We hoped this would allow movements to be seen and understood for their message; these are people who are protesting for their lives, and the lives of the people they care about. They are protesting to protect their way of life. 

Mask Up started with a humble Just Giving page on the 3rd of June last year, with a target aim of £100 so that me and my mate could buy some masks and sanitiser to give out at upcoming protests. A day later our Just Giving page had raised £800. By our first official event for Black Lives Matter (BLM) on 13th June we had raised £1,260 on Just Giving. We used that to secure protective equipment for all our volunteers – a bunch of students and University of Sussex BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) society members, but 90% were just my mates. We also bought over a dozen litres of sanitiser and 2,500 masks, and a further 6,000 were donated to us for the event. After the BLM protest the organisers said we should use any left-over money and equipment at our discretion.. 

So we carried on. We have handed out all of those initial 8,000 masks now, gone through 70-odd litres of sanitiser, and provided our volunteers with full PPE at all times. We have seen a lot. After each protest we make a good point of following up with each other, checking in and reflecting on what we went through. We have created a group of 50-60 volunteers who support each other, even though at any one time there are only 20 or so people on rotation, it’s still been a wonderful way to stay in touch with friends over lockdown. Something that has been really rewarding for a lot of people is knowing that they can make a difference in securing the health of the public at large, without necessarily having to be healthcare professionals. We teach everyone how to handle their PPE safely – but after that, it’s all on them as a team.

BLM Protestor
Image by Hannah Brown @hhbrown_photography

Which protests did you provide Covid-safe equipment for over lockdown? 

Black Lives Matter was the first movement that we worked with, and we continue to work with them to date. We have been working with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign pretty much as long as BLM… Everyone has been really easy to work with, especially with getting involved and starting up. There have been a few feminist movements we have worked with, such as Sisters Uncut – particularly after the Sarah Everard vigils. There have been a few younger students’ movements too, with the protests of sexual violence in schools. That was particularly harrowing for many of our volunteers – to see people so young having to voice issues so complex and traumatic.

Obviously things have gotten busier recently since the events at Sarah Everard’s vigil and with the Kill the Bill Protests… 

[Part 2 of this series will be focussed on Kill the Bill and the events at Sarah Everard vigil, which Hansaka was present to witness

Will the new easing of restrictions / mask wearing make it easier to protest? 

Not continuing to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing is a terrible idea! The British Medical Association (BMA) are completely against it, and there is no evidence to support the removal of Covid safety measures whilst Covid cases are on the rise.The New Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that up to 100,000 new cases of Covid could turn up in a day this summer.

Senior BMA members including chair of council Chaand Nagpaul and co-chairs of the BMA’s public health committee Penelope Toff and Richard Jarvis co-signed a letter in The Lancet published yesterday – which described the easing of restrictions as ‘reckless’.”

– BMA, published 9th July 2021

I understand where the government are coming from, pandemics consistently last years and come in series of waves, and we can’t continue with these restrictions throughout that time. At the moment, the amount of people that are vaccinated is high, and that means that people are less likely to die or become seriously ill enough to be hospitalized if they catch the virus, so we need a plan to push ahead and make Covid something that we can live with. BUT there are still some people shielding, and people who are immunocompromised or who haven’t had the vaccine yet – and their lives are at risk if new cases continue to rise. 6/10 Covid deaths have been people who had disabilities… no one seems to be acknowledging that!

Today’s figures clearly show that current measures to protect disabled people are not enough and that there is an urgent need for more and better support. Disabled people are more likely to have one or more long-term health conditions, which means they are at greater risk of suffering severe symptoms if they get COVID-19.”

– Mehrunisha Suleman, Senior Research Fellow at the Health Foundation.

There also seems to be a lot of confusion about how the vaccine works – it doesn’t stop you catching and spreading Covid-19. The vaccine just makes it far far less likely that you will get serious symptoms or die from Covid – which means that now, the NHS system is not overwhelmed with Covid patients. The vaccine is exactly what we need to get the country going, and I don’t think it has been rushed, but there seems to be this general misunderstanding that it has fixed everything. It hasn’t, because the vaccine has no role in prevention – in preventing those vaccinated from getting Covid-19, or preventing them from spreading Covid to those in contact with them. So yes, there are reasons to ease restrictions – namely because hospitals can cope with another wave of infections at this point, but right now, with many still at risk and shielding, the most sensible option is to listen to the BMA, recognise that the pandemic isn’t over yet, and make safe, sensible choices.

Speaking for myself now, not ‘Mask Up’, I think that it’s only being “left up to common sense” so that the government know where to point the blame when we face the repercussions from the abandonment of restrictions. It’s not the first time they’ve blamed us and it won’t be the last. We each have our own responsibility to one another’s safety coming out of the pandemic. 

Woman peacefully protesting during lockdown
Image by Hannah Brown @hhbrown_photography

What advice would you give to people wanting to stay safe during protests to come? 

Social distancing is not a cute suggestion – you should do this for your safety. But more than that it makes the protest bigger, literally. That space is your space when you are protesting, you own it and you deserve to use it – don’t let anyone take it away from you. Keep it to an arm and a bit, it’s more comfortable for you and you are less likely to be kettled by the cops. When everyone is spread out you appear more confident as a movement, and you can be more disruptive if that’s your intention. 

Also, and this is important to me and Mask Up as an organisation: it makes the protest more accessible for anyone with sensory challenges, for wheelchair users and is less stressful for everyone on the whole. Our new thing is talking to the people in movements and getting them to take some personal responsibility for spreading out, as well as suggesting places to organisers where protests can take place without being space-restricted, or on cobbled streets which can cause accessibility issues. It’s super important.

Sanitize Hands and don’t make physical contact with anyone…  Do you need to hug your friends at a protest? You aren’t just there to meet up with people! Ask yourself: Where do I stand in this protest? POC’s are disproportionately affected by Covid – I’ve seen this myself, I can’t tell you how many POC’s are in hospital with Covid. Try not to forget the impact Covid has on the minoritized communities we are so often protesting to protect. So.. show you care by following the rules: If you are anti-racist you, ought to be anti-Covid. 

People of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death than people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Black Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British.”

Public Health England Report: Disparities in the risks and outcomes of Covid-19

Mask Up with a good quality mask, Sanitize regularly, Keep your distance – Literally Hands, Face, Space as the government says. 

I cannot stress enough the importance of a good face mask… Other than that I suggest keeping a general eye on what is happening, if there are arrests happening film it! But try to protect people’s identities if you do, that footage could be used to actually implicate people so try not to film people’s full faces up close – maintain anonymity. I have seen protests where everyone was masked up, socially distanced and peacefully going about the protest – 20 minutes after the police showed up and kettled the protest, all the Covid safety measures they had in place were effectively gone.  

Finally – just look after each other!

 > You can also follow Mask Up @maskupgroup on Instagram. If you would like to support Mask Up, by volunteering or donating, or would like to know more, check out their website: maskupgroup.org

NEWS – BN1 Magazine