The first time I was teargassed, in Istanbul, Turkey, I thought I was going to die. Overwhelming pain flooded my eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. I couldn’t breathe. The most recent time I was teargassed, in November in Hong Kong, I paused to assess the situation, and nonchalantly reached for my mask in my backpack.
I had ducked into a building in the middle of Hong Kong’s swirling protests and had walked out, unexpectedly, into a cloud of tear gas. I wasn’t calm because I had somehow mutated to become resistant to tear gas. But like every protester in sustained political movements, I had been through the experience enough times to know what to expect. I knew about the first moment of existential horror, the shock of losing one’s breath, and the deep indignation of being gassed like an insect. I knew how to acclimate, adjust, and gear up. If you’re teargassed repeatedly, as I have been as an academic researching protest movements, you learn how to hold your breath and close your eyes. You learn how to avoid gulping a huge amount of wretched air in sheer panic, and how to quickly move toward an area with less concentrated gas. Most important, you learn to acquire a full-face respirator that keeps the gas out.
Being teargassed during a pandemic, as so many have been this past week in the United States, is a different experience. Tear gas is a major irritant to one’s throat, nose, and lungs, the very places the coronavirus attaches to in order to start its silent invasion. The U.S. Army found that recruits who were exposed to tear gas—to ensure that their first shocking experience with the weapon was in a controlled environment—had more respiratory illnesses in the following days. A study from Turkey similarly found chronic respiratory problems, persisting for years, among activists, journalists, and students frequently exposed to tear gas. Many reported ongoing dyspnea—the medical term for “I can’t breathe.”