Calling “white supremacy” a “lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” the letter – signed by upwards of 1,200 self-declared public health professionals before it was closed to signatures on Tuesday, supposedly because “alt-right messages” had been added – trumpets the necessity of continuing the protests that began after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, pandemic be damned.
Despite months of warnings that getting within six feet of another human being will invariably result in infection and likely death, the letter proclaims that “as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for Covid-19 transmission.”
Posted in final form on Wednesday, it outlines a series of “safest protesting practices” – providing masks, hand-washing stations and hand sanitizer to demonstrators, for example – while stressing that its approval of the nationwide anti-racism protests “should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-at-home orders.”
“Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”
While protesters might be surprised to learn that the epidemic they’ve been hiding from for months is so politically savvy that it can distinguish between anti-lockdown and anti-racism protesters, the health experts were ready to tie themselves in logical pretzels to explain how this one type of protest – very likely to be the first group event participants had attended in months – was safe. While acknowledging cities should “prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest,” it’s the police response that really spreads the virus, the letter stressed – arresting rioters and packing them into crowded jail cells is to be avoided at all costs.
Law enforcement must refrain from breaking up these demonstrations “under the guise of maintaining public health,” the letter demanded, urging police to avoid the use of tear gas and other crowd-control munitions that could increase the likelihood of protesters contracting the virus. In fact, police should stay away from protesters as much as possible, while “allies who wish to facilitate safe demonstrations” can set out chalk markings to help protesters maintain social distancing.
Even public health officials who didn’t sign the letter have attempted to spread “safe protesting” tips. The New York City Health Department has urged protesters to avoid yelling or singing and “use signs and noisemakers instead,” stick to small groups, and keep six feet away from other groups – advice that seems absurd in light of the massive crowds thronging city streets night after night.
Letter co-creator and infectious disease specialist Rachel Bender Ignacio told Slate its aims are to provide public health officials with narrative-friendly answers to media questions about the implications of the protests on Covid-19, as well as to soothe public concerns about whether the protests are spreading the virus.
Those concerns would seem to be well-founded, given that a vast portion of the country has spent the last three months hiding out in their homes, deprived of the vitamin D and human contact that are vital to maintaining healthy immune systems. Given the dozens of stories that have appeared in the media about people attending illegal parties and anti-lockdown protests – or merely disbelieving the hype surrounding the epidemic – only to be laid low by the coronavirus as punishment for defying stay-at-home orders, naysayers are no doubt waiting for the first cases of Covid-19 to crop up in protesters any day now, and the letter-writers’ effort to downplay the possibility is unlikely to hold water.
Statistics collected by the Covid-19 Tracking Project and the Antiracist Research and Policy Center appear to show black communities suffering disproportionately from the virus, dying at twice the rate of whites. However, the high number of mitigating factors – poverty, co-existing health conditions, unavailability of quality healthcare, urban overcrowding – would seem to suggest there’s more at play than racial inequality. Nearly half the country’s confirmed cases (48 percent) still had no race attached to them as of last week, while nine percent of deaths were also race-unknown. The actions of certain governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, in forcing nursing homes to accept coronavirus patients despite the dire risk posed to their vulnerable elderly residents have also contributed to the high death toll in certain areas.