Protests have erupted nationwide in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, and public health experts warn of a likely uptick in Covid-19 infections. “There is the concern that protests could be super spreader events,” said Kim Sue, a physician who has participated in demonstrations.
And yet many health experts – aware of the risk – say they still support the protests, suggesting that police violence is its own kind of epidemic. We spoke with three of them.
Is it safe to protest during a pandemic?
Georges Benjamin, physician: There are many people who feel strongly that racism and police violence has gotten to the point that the risk calculation has changed. And so that they have to at least go out and let the public and the police know that it’s unacceptable. I’m African American, and so to me, the risk of being shot and killed by a police officer may, in some communities, be much higher than the risk of getting Covid-19 and dying.
The public health perspective is all about risk. And I think it’s a false trade-off. I mean, it is true that if you go back out there, we’re going to see spikes of disease. But at the end of the day, we’re still seeing an epidemic of police violence that just doesn’t seem to end.
Kim Sue, physician: Everyone is making these risk-benefit calculations for themselves, based on what they perceive to be their own risk factors. There’s no one size fits all for that. That’s why it’s really important to have conversations about what people can do to minimize their risk.
How do you apply that calculus to yourself?
Sue: Many of my friends are immunocompromised and would otherwise be [protesting] but really can’t right now. I see it as a gift that I’m able to be physically present for people who can’t take on those risks.
Lauren Powell, epidemiologist: I protested in a different way. I stood in solidarity along the sidelines and chanted along with protesters as they passed, had my black-power fist up and I recorded for my family who couldn’t be out. I was wearing double masks, and I had gloves – that was how I felt most comfortable. There’s a spectrum of protest.
How do you square protesting with the messaging that being a good citizen during a pandemic means staying home?
Powell: It’s a privileged perspective, to state that I am solely being a good citizen by staying home. At the root, it’s racism that is perpetuating the inequities of Covid-19, that caused George Floyd to be murdered, that has police using excessive force on peaceful protesters. It’s racism that has a national leader potentially unleashing militarization upon the country.
As a public health professional, I recognize the challenges of a pandemic, but this is a moment that so many of us do not have the privilege to turn away from. There has never been a convenient moment to protest.
What advice would you give people who want to protest?
Benjamin: Go out in a smaller crowd, wear a face mask, bring hand sanitizer with you. Avoid shaking hands and giving high fives – try to physically distance. Limit your time out there. Obviously, if you have any symptoms of Covid-19, don’t go out.
Engaging online in chat rooms and having virtual protests is certainly less risky than walking in the streets. But [protesting] is something that many people feel they have to do, and we – the American Public Health Association – support their right to do that.
Powell: If you wear a mask, keep it on all the time. I’m seeing some protesters remove their masks to chant along, and that’s the moment that you need it the most because of potential Covid transmission through droplets.
Sue: Covid is easily transmitted in shared, indoor living environments – so if you are part of a household, there should be a collective understanding and agreement about the risks and benefits of going out.
I’d recommend that people not be out there every single day. From a disease transmission point of view, I would recommend people maybe go once a week and do some other organizing inside and online.
Are you concerned about a new wave of Covid-19 infections?
Sue: We know asymptomatic transmission is possible. There is the concern that protests could be super spreader events.
Benjamin: We should anticipate more people [becoming infected] with the disease.
A recent op-ed suggested that protesters who knowingly put themselves at risk of contracting coronavirus amid medical scarcities should forgo care.
Sue: Medical care is a right. I don’t care what behavior you participate in, any behavior you take part in. If anything happens to you, we take care of you no matter what.
Are there police practices that increase the risk of transmission?
Sue: Many police officers in New York City are not even wearing masks.
Powell: There’s some responsibility of state and local officials to reconsider the use of pepper spray, because the use of pepper spray causes people to cough. Teargas – you’re probably going to cough and cry and [protesters will] want to take off their masks.
In the unfortunate event that people should be arrested or detained, putting multiple people in a small, enclosed car has also the potential threat for spreading Covid. Worst of all, placing someone in jail – we know that there are Covid outbreaks all over the country in jails. It’s not only incumbent upon our protesters to be safe. It’s also incumbent upon our police force and our local and state leaders to ensure the safety of protesters.
Dr Georges Benjamin, physician and executive director, American Public Health Association
Lauren Powell, epidemiologist and vice-president, head of healthcare industry, Time’s Up
Dr Kimberly Sue, physician and anthropologist, and the medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition