Protesting during a pandemic is a risk. Many have decided it’s worth it.

As someone with asthma, Meredith Blake was deeply concerned about the pandemic getting sick. While Covid-19 spread across America, she stayed at her Boston home for 12 weeks, isolating herself from others as much as possible.

Her self-quarantine ended on June 1. After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, she was forced to march nearby with a large crowd of other Bostonians. She wore a face mask and used a lot of hand sanitizer wipes.

“I was definitely a little nervous,” about catching Covid-19 in the crowd, says Blake, a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. But showing up and speaking out was more important to her at the moment: “I have a vested interest in protecting black and brown people, not only professionally, but also personally,” she says. She felt she could no longer prioritize her personal safety against the coronavirus.

Blake works daily with health professionals and ER physicians and knew it was dangerous to join a crowd – for themselves and the community. But she made a careful calculation: Covid-19 is a huge risk, and for her, the protests were worth it.

On the right, some commentators have accused public health experts of hypocrisy surrounding the protests for endorsing them after saying for months that people should stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Some of those commentators asked: Is it fair as the disadvantaged can’t you have funerals for loved ones while others march in massive numbers? Why do companies have to stay closed when? multiple high-profile experts say the protests are worth it? Author J.D. Vance, for afears that the endorsement of the public health protest will be undermined by experts. “I’m still amazed at how quickly the moral scolding stopped once elite-favorite protests started to take place,” Vance tweeted.

I have spoken to several public health experts who support the protests – both black and white – and asked what they wish people like Vance could accept.

Here’s what they say: protesters are more afraid of doing nothing in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder than the pandemic. And centuries of systemic racism, lives of discrimination and years of watching black people die unnecessarily invite these fears.

“It is difficult for me as a public health professional, who also knows my history, to tell anyone in general to take all these people off the street if they protest 400 years of another pandemic that happens to be non-contagious , “says Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami, says. “It’s not something that might catch a white man. Right?”

People take to the streets because they feel that their lives depend on it, because one in a thousand black men can die because of the police. Because they fear that a state officer will kill them for something minor, such as being suspected of a counterfeit $ 20 bill, like Floyd did. They go out because of the systemic reasons why Covid-19 has harmed black people in greater numbers, and because black people are more likely to experience the worst illness.

“People are on the street because of them to have says Rhea Boyd, a pediatrician who works in the Bay Area in California. “Because that’s so terrible. Even in the context of a pandemic, where you seem to be there, you risk life. There are so many risks to your life. You have to be there to protect it. People, especially black people, need a lot of changes that need to happen immediately. ”

Missing a funeral is painful. Keeping a business closed is painful and really does damage. Nobody doubts it. The question is: can you live with the consequences?

And what if, on the other hand, you feel that your life and that of the people you care about depends on protest?

Make no mistake: protesting during a pandemic can spread Covid-19

Many protesters follow the public health advice while demonstrating: wear masks, distance, use hand sanitizer, and be tested for Covid-19. But it should also be said that there is no completely safe way to demonstrate during massive pandemic rallies, and the threat of new waves from Covid-19 is still very real.

New cases of Covid-19, nationally, are dropping from a peak, but national figures are obscuring smaller outbreaks that are increasing in some areas. It may look better, but there are still about 20,000 new Covid-19 cases a day. And those are only the people who are tested. According to Ashish Jha, a professor of global health at Harvard, the true number of new daily infections in the US may be closer to 125,000.

The protests also take place at a very uncertain time during the pandemic. The overall situation seems to be improving, but a new wave could emerge below the surface if states reopen. The incubation period of the virus, combined with limited means of testing, means that we cannot have real-time knowledge of the state of the outbreak.

Nobody knows what will happen next or how big the next wave can be. There are so many uncertainties about how the virus will spread in a country with a patchwork of response systems and varying levels of social distance compliance and mask wear.

That said, we know the deadly potential of the virus is still great. We are still looking at dealing with Covid-19 on a time scale of months, if not years.

We also know that mass gatherings are risky, even when people take precautions. Yes, it is safer that the protests are outside (there are very few of them documented cases of open-air transmission of coronavirus). Yes, it is safer if people wear masks; it is safer when people try to distance themselves. But there is no such thing as zero risk with this virus. And the math of exponential growth means that it doesn’t take a big spark to create an outbreak that happens in the thousands.

“I am very concerned, like my colleagues in public health, when they see crowds like this,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top White House advisor on the pandemic, WTOP told on Friday. “There is certainly a risk. I can say that with confidence. ‘

It is possible for Covid-19 to spread among those marching and crying out for justice with respiratory droplets. It is also possible that Covid-19 spreads due to the law enforcement response, throwing tear gas into the crowd, coughing people, forcing them into smaller and smaller spaces, and then arresting and confining them in small prison cells. The infection may spread in both directions.

This is not lost on public health experts, nor is the fact that the next wave of cases can have a disproportionate impact on the protesting minority communities. They become ill earlier and are more often identified as essential workers when new closure orders are issued.

“I am certainly concerned about the possible spread of SARS-CoV-2 and how the protests going on could contribute to a second wave of Covid-19, which would again disproportionately affect the black community,” Jaime Slaughter-Acey, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, says. “Being a black epidemiologist … the way I see this is that those who protest say that George Floyd’s life, that black life, matter, and that they prioritize black life over their own individual life. And there is nothing more selfless than that. ”

Why some public health experts say the protests are “vital”

Some journalists have smelled a hint of hypocrisy in epidemiologists who endorse the protests. These same public health experts did not support anti-freeze protesters advocating reopening of the economy. They condemned mass gatherings of people in it a big swimming pool. The argument is that health experts have changed their recommendations now that there is a protest in line with their policy of social justice.

“One thing I’ve told people is that public health counseling hasn’t really changed,” said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “It is always” staying at home as much as possible, except for essential activities. “But the definition of essential is not scientific – it is sociological. … Protesting police brutality is an essential activity for many people.”

A woman with “I can’t breathe,” written on her neck during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 31.
Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

(It is not surprising that many epidemiologists feel this way. When they are not dealing with a pandemic, they often study social inequalities and the social determinants of health. Through this work, we now know a lot about systemic racism and its implications for the health .)

Alison Bateman-House, a medical ethicist at NYU, says we need to think carefully about the costs and benefits of any type of protest.

“Your desire for a haircut isn’t enough to absorb the potential for damage you inflict on others” during a pandemic, Bateman-House says. It is also true that the suffocation of the economy during the pandemic has made life worse for many people. But opening the economy again was never the only answer. The government could have been more generous in its support of people out of work.

Now consider the costs and benefits of the mass racial justice protests.

“For people of color and black people, their costs of not doing something are much higher than possibly contracting a virus,” said Aisha Langford, a professor of health communication at NYU. “I could die as black in America – literally just living black in America is a risk factor to die, possibly through police and possibly on national television. And history has shown that people often [the perpetrators] are not even brought to justice. So it’s almost like your life is being thrown away. If I am silent and do absolutely nothing, I could die because I exist. “

Like Boyd put it in a recent panel of the American Medical Association, Protest saves lives. The Black Liberation Movement, Queer Liberation Movement, Women’s Liberation Movement – all built on protest. ”

If you think the protests are essential, “I’d say your social priority is to limit damage,” says Bateman-House. For demonstrators, this means wearing masks and eye protection, avoiding screaming, keeping away from others and being tested for Covid-19 (if possible) after the protests return, and keeping social distance in other aspects of life.

Law enforcement can also cause damage, as this crowds don’t seem to be going away. That means we don’t use tear gas and don’t put people in overcrowded cells, because we know that confined interior spaces are the greatest risk. In New York, Gothamist reportsHundreds of protesters were confined to tight cells for more than a day – a perfect place for the spread of the coronavirus. BuzzFeed has estimated at least 11,000 have been arrested across the country during protests.

What’s worse: More people are dying of Covid-19 or persistent systemic racism?

The debate over pandemic protests raises a question: what are the greater costs to society: aggravating the spread of Covid-19 or not protesting racial justice at the moment?

“I’d say that’s the wrong question, and it’s almost a distraction,” says Bailey. “Many people think on a very short time horizon. The protesters are not only there for themselves. They are there for generations to come. They are there for their children and grandchildren to live in a different society. Turn right? So I don’t think it’s a distraction trying to quantify what that looks like. “She fears that people who raise the risks of Covid-19 are trying to silence the protest movement.

It is difficult to make a direct comparison of the two threats, of racism and of new Covid-19 cases.

Epidemiologists can model what happens when people come closer together during a pandemic. They can tell us that Covid-19 is more likely to spread when people gather, that more infections and deaths can occur. But they cannot easily model what happens to inequalities in society when a mass protest movement changes the anti-racist stance for the better.

The protest is fueled by the belief that it will be worth it: that forcing an account with society will be enough to save more lives in the future. And not only save lives, but ease the burden of systemic racism at all levels in society.

“If there are places that immediately repel their police, I think that’s worth it,” says Boyd, the pediatrician. She mentions how Lego has withdrew his marketing from police themed playsets. “And I think that’s huge – there’s a cultural shift in how we think about police work, it’s not a toy, it’s a very deadly and dangerous system we’ve built with racist implications in our society,” says she.

And although the protests may have already affected racial attitudes in America. Support for Black Lives Matter is unprecedentedly high, according to research firm Civiqs.

What is the value of that cultural change compared to the pandemic? What is the value of all the Instagram posts I’ve seen from white people sharing guides for other white people to talk to their families about systemic racism? What is the value of this protest movement and its potential impact on the November elections? What is it worth showing how law enforcement officers can confront peaceful protesters with cruel means on live television? Can this whole society take the health and well-being of black people and minorities more seriously?

Some changes have already been made. Minneapolis dismantles its police department and transforming it. Voter registrations rise. But the larger cultural shifts are more difficult to quantify, more difficult to know how, if and when they can improve the lives of black communities and save lives.

Here’s the problem: how can we really compare the death and destruction of the pandemic to all that? They do not work in the same dimensions. Yes, both racism and the pandemic can lead to death. But comparing deaths to death doesn’t feel right. Racism is so much more multidimensional and harms in a mind-boggling array of ways.

Just look at the pandemic and how it has disproportionately impacted black and minority communities. There are structural reasons for this.

Many racial and ethnic minorities, law professors Ruqaiijah Yearby and Seema Mohapatra explain, are classified as “essential workers” and are unable to work from home, leave their jobs or access paid sick leave. They live in denser homes and more polluted communities than whites – as a result of years of racist housing policies that put them at greater risk during a pandemic. And when they get sick, their access to healthcare is often limited (as is their ability to pay for it).

“Especially at the beginning of this pandemic, in order to be tested, you needed a referral from a general practitioner in many places,” says Mohapatra. “And a lot of people of color, because of where they live, and you can trace it to redlining … really don’t have access.” That’s just one example of how structural racism is an overcoming problem that becomes apparent when a pandemic breaks out.

Faced with the worst-case Covid-19 scenario, the protest movement shows that there is hope for a better America

It is easy to think about the worst case scenarios.

The protests could spread Covid-19 and since many protesters are black, this can exacerbate the toll of black communities. The protesters were able to encourage others to end the social distance. The protests could continue to harm the pandemic response; already some test sites are closed amid the turmoil.

If the Covid-19 cases peaked a few weeks after the protests, we don’t immediately know why – was it the police tactic, the tear gas? Was it just the crowds? Was it prison? Was it the general “reopening” of our economy that is taking place at the same time? Before and during the protests, states reopened without adequate measures such as testing and contact tracking. It is possible that many locations are set up for a new wave of infections, protests or not.

For lack of clear information the fingers will point. People will blame the new wave on the group they least like. The discourse will become more polarized. The credibility of health workers may come under pressure as conservatives blame them for giving the green light to protests.

I fear the pandemic. I fear a new wave exploding. But as a white man with a privilege, I don’t think it’s up to me to judge whether the protests are worth it.

There are real, deadly risks. But these protests are not about cringe for fear of risk. They are about hope for change. Hope is difficult to quantify and difficult to reject.

“We hope this type of mass movement has the same impact as other civil rights actions,” said Blake. “I hope policymakers, legislators and elected officials pay attention to the calculated risk many of us face, because it would be tragic not only if there was a spike in Covid infections and deaths, but if no policies were changed after this.”

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