Protesting During a Pandemic

In late May of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers. This set off a wave of massive protests that would grip the United States, with supportive protests across Canada and around the globe. These protests soon gained backing from over 1,000 public health experts, who signed an open letter in support of the protestors. This led some commentators to call the public health experts hypocrites or question the wisdom of the slowdowns. Although there is much to say about the protests, the following readings focus on questions of how public health authorities ought to response to protests.

Rachel R. Hardeman, Eduardo M. Medina, and Rhea W. Boyd (10 June 2020), “Stolen Breaths,” The New England Journal of Medicine
A poetic examination of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and “the nearly 1000 people who are killed by police each year.” Hardeman, Medina, and Boyde compare the breaths stolen from Floyd by the police to the breaths stolen from Black Americans by the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on their communities.

Glen Greenwald (11 June 2020), “The Abrupt, Radical Reversal in How Public Health Experts Now Speak About the Coronavirus and Mass Gatherings,” The Intercept
Although Greenwald supports the protests, he has difficulty reconciling public health experts’ support of these protests with their previous insistence that draconian lockdown measures are needed to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Greenwald says that in order to retain credibility public health experts will have to reckon with the following: “One of two things is true; either 1) these protests will lead to a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, in which case public health experts should reconcile that outcome with how they could have encouraged and endorsed them; or 2) it will not lead to such a spike, in which case it will appear that the months of extreme, draconian lockdowns — which caused great suffering and deprivation around the world — were excessive, misguided and unwarranted.”

Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves (11 June 2020), “Public-Health Experts Are Not Hypocrites: Health is about more than simply remaining free of coronavirus infection,” The Atlantic
Epidemiologists Marcus and Gonsalves explain the public health reasoning behind their support for the protests. They believe that support for anti-racism protests is justified by a public health goal to “maximize the health of the population across all aspects of life.” Racism is an important social determinant of health and has led to vast disparities in health and life expectancy between Black and white Americans. In contrast, anti-lockdown protests do not maximize the health of populations and so are not supported by a public health goal.

Derrick Z. Jackson (11 June 2020), “A Second Wave of COVID-19 Looms Large—and It’s Not Because of Protests,” Union of Concerned Scientists [blog]
Jackson believes that an increase in COVID-19 cases is likely to follow the protests, but he believes that the spike is the result of police actions rather than those of protestors. Jackson notes that protestors were almost universally wearing masks, whereas the police use of teargas induced coughing among the crowd.