The U.S. is world-renowned for its short memory—whether it’s our fraught history of uprisings, fighting pandemics, or racist presidents. But if there is one development in 2020 that is truly unique, it’s that this country has never experienced a massive racial uprising on this scale as we’re simultaneously fighting a pandemic.
Over the weekend, tens of thousands of protesters demanded accountability from law enforcement and government officials over their collective disregard for black lives. But many who protested—and many more who stayed at home—felt conflicted about performing a necessary act of civil demonstration when a deadly, contagious disease is still sweeping the nation.
Public health experts, protest organizers, and public officials cautioned protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing as much as they could during the massive demonstrations.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told demonstrators to get tested for COVID-19 after attending protests, pointing out that the pandemic is “killing black and brown people at higher numbers” in Metro Atlanta and around the country, The Daily Beast reports. She told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that she is “extremely concerned” about spikes in coronavirus cases over the coming weeks.
Such warnings were also issued by Minnesota’s health commissioner and by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, according to the Daily Beast. In Minneapolis, the nerve center of the nationwide protests after the horrific killing of George Floyd last Monday, black people have accounted for 34 percent of coronavirus cases as of May 29, even though they make up just 18 percent of the city’s population, Mother Jones reports.
As the Atlantic explains, it’s difficult to practice good social distancing measures during mass demonstrations for all the obvious reasons—chanting, close proximity to other protesters on city streets and sidewalks—but also due to aggressive police responses intended to “control” the demonstrations:
From the Atlantic:
The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas). It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.
This reality prompted Harvard-based public-health researcher Mark Shrime to tell Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer, “I don’t think there’s a question of whether there will be spikes in cases in 10 to 14 days.”
“With so many protests happening, that are getting so much bigger, I don’t think it’s a question of if, but when and where.”
But several public health experts who spoke to the Atlantic, while noting the dangers of the protests, didn’t discourage demonstrators from turning out, either.
“I personally believe that these particular protests—which demand justice for black and brown bodies that have been brutalized by the police—are a necessary action,” said Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.”
This opinion was echoed by Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, who also pointed to the governmental failure to protect African Americans from the COVID crisis.
“These protests are currently the primary channel to seek accountability for the governance systems that have led to extrajudicial killings and police violence, but also for the disproportionate death from COVID-19 experienced by black and brown Americans,” she said.
Protesters and public health officials are doing their best, meanwhile, to inform demonstrators about best practices for protesting during a pandemic—even if the efforts are piecemeal, and the spread likely to happen anyway. People participating in last weekend’s rallies were advised to bring hand sanitizer as well as noisemakers so they could avoid chanting, for instance. Open-air settings can also reduce the risk of transmission, said some epidemiologists.
But there’s only so much organizers can do to control the conditions of these mass gatherings: if police corral protesters onto narrow streets or sidewalks, for instance, or spray tear gas and other chemicals at protesters, creating more “respiratory secretions from the eyes, nose, and mouth, further enhancing the possibility of transmission,” writes the New York Times.
It’s fair to say that many of those who protested over the last week have taken stock of the coronavirus risks, but feel pressed to act regardless.
“It’s too easy to say we’re in a pandemic,” Kira Pratt, a protester in Denver, told the Denver Post last Thursday. “Black people are at risk every day just living.”