- Protests against racism and police brutality continue to happen daily, often in cities that are still under some form of coronavirus-related restrictions.
- COVID-19 is less transmissible in outdoor spaces and warm weather, but the CDC’s director warned this week that the protests could be a “seeding event,” which could lead to a resurgence in infections.
- An open letter signed by 1,288 “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals and community stakeholders” encouraged the protests to continue and asked police to not disband them.
- This presents a problem: How do science experts tell the public it’s a potentially mortal threat to the health of society if you go out and gather around lots of people – even for a funeral – but not maintain that epidemiological guidance for a specific kind of gathering?
- The protests are fighting for a righteous cause. Science experts are right to support them in spirit, but when offering expert guidance, they need to be heartless, just as the disease is.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Massive protests against racism and police brutality have taken place in cities and towns across the country, and in most of these places, some form of coronavirus-related restrictions are still in place.
In New York City, where some of the largest demonstrations have taken place, phase one of “reopening” isn’t even on the schedule until next week.
While we’re seeing evidence that the coronavirus is far less transmissible in outdoor spaces, there are legitimate concerns that the close quarters involved with the protests could lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections.
“I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event,” CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a House committee hearing Thursday.
That’s because protesting isn’t like going to the beach. You’re often marching with hundreds or thousands of strangers in close quarters, yelling, hugging, and most dangerously of all, sometimes coughing tear gas out of your lungs.
Over the next two or three weeks, regardless of whether the protests continue (I’m betting that they will), a referendum will take place on the necessity of mandatory closings of any number of establishments.
If COVID-19 infections don’t spike during that period, there would be little remaining reason to justify continuing the economically devastating restrictions. We could instead apply the social distancing rules and scaled back public gatherings we’ve already become accustomed to over the past three months.
The flipside – a rise in new COVID-19 cases that can be reasonably traced to the protests – would present a very different and considerable challenge to the public and the government.
How do you continue to convince the public that houses of worship, businesses, and schools must remain closed, but massive protests should continue?
A perfect protest where germs can’t be spread
An open letter signed by 1,288 “public health professionals, infectious diseases professionals and community stakeholders” urged police and governments to “not disband protests under the guise of maintaining public health for COVID-19 restrictions.”
The letter advised protesters to maintain social distancing while protesting, and use noisemakers and hold signs rather than shouting. It also advised police that they too should maintain social distance, and not arrest or jail protesters.
The authors of the open letter are using their medical expertise authoritatively, but they’re imaging a utopian ideal of protest that involves no confrontation, close quarters, or loud speaking.
They also wrote, “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” and cited the disproportionately high rates of infection among black Americans as a reason they support the protests as “vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”
This presents a difficult conundrum, but one that’s going to be addressed on a mass scale in the coming days: How do science experts and government officials tell the public it’s a potentially mortal threat to the health of society if you go out and gather around lots of people – even for a funeral – but not maintain that epidemiological guidance for a specific kind of gathering?
Writing at The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer spoke with several experts who all agreed the protests would likely cause a spike in infections, or at least substantially increase the risk.
Harvard medical school computational epidemiologist Maimuna Majumder told Meyer that “there’s little doubt that these protests will translate into increased risk of transmission for COVID-19,” but she personally supports the protests taking place during a pandemic in part because “structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.”
Scientific credibility needs to be maintained
This is, for good reason, a moment of fraught emotions and high anxiety. But medical science isn’t emotional.
Already calls like the open letter are being used by opponents of the lockdowns to justify getting rid of the pandemic guidelines or ignoring these experts. By making exemptions for the protests or arguing that a potential spike in infections is a fair trade off, scientists make their own recommendations vulnerable to these counterarguments.
The relaxing of lockdown measures across the US will likely also play a part in any spike in infections, which will make it hard to disentangle which infections came from protests and which came from people socialising again. But the protests are a highly-visible mass gathering, and there’s still the highly likely possibility that a second wave of the pandemic will hit the US.
Should that happen, it is crucial that the public trusts science and medical experts to give them the cold, heartless facts of the consequences of an uncontrolled pandemic.
If it is in the public interest – the global public interest – for citizens to once again abandon their livelihoods, their children’s’ education, and their freedom of movement to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, it doesn’t make scientific sense to grant exceptions.
Without a strict consistency regarding the social guidelines, it will be hard to convince the public that they have a societal duty to stay home for months, again.
When governments told the public that they must make great sacrifices, elected officials relied on the scientists to give their apolitical, unemotional opinion regarding the threat posed by the coronavirus. That’s what convinced the public that the lockdowns were necessary.
The protests are demonstrations of pain and anger and are fighting for a righteous cause. Science experts are right to support them in spirit, but when offering expert guidance, they need to be heartless, just as the disease is.
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