Nationwide protests have erupted by the police killing of George Floyd have raised health concerns, but many experts say police violence is its own kind of epidemic.
“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. The Guardian Daily have interviewed three public health practitioners and these are their thoughts.
The question is, is it safe to protest during a pandemic?
According to George Benjamin ,a 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.” He added.
Brushing off the social distancing is risky and we would not know when the virus will devour our system. 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, the real and deadliest epidemic of police violence that just doesn’t seem to end is the biggest threat of all.
“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.” A physician named Kim Sue said.
“Many of my friends are immune compromised 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.” Sue added.
Lauren Powell, an epidemiologist said “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 will you express or protest while at 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-19 transmission through droplets.
Sue: COVID-19 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.
How about a new wave of COVID-19 transmission?
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. Tear gas – you’re probably going to cough and cry and [protesters will] want to take off their masks.
The potential another wave of coronavirus threat is not over yet. Scary as it seems but the possibility of having a drastic increase of number of coronavirus transmission will make everything worst.
It’s not only important upon our protesters to be safe. It’s also important upon our police force and our local and state leaders to ensure the safety of protesters.