Protesting Racism Versus Risking COVID-19: ‘I Wouldn’t Weigh These Crises Separately’

June 3, 2020 by Christen Aldrich

Filed under COVID-19 for Employers, COVID-19 for the Workforce

Last modified June 4, 2020

Mass protests that have erupted over police brutality toward black people in America are raising concerns about the risk of spreading the coronavirus. But some health experts, even as they urge caution, said they support the demonstrations — because racism also poses a dire health threat.

NPR discusses the current crisis in this article, reporting on the thousands of people, masked and unmasked, crowding the streets of Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Ky., and other cities in the week since George Floyd was killed. They are the largest public gatherings in the U.S. since the pandemic forced widespread shutdowns, and many local officials warned of a possible spike in new cases in the next one or two weeks.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a list of tips for demonstrators to lower their risk of contracting COVID-19, such as covering their faces and staying in small groups. “Don’t yell; use signs & noise makers instead,” the department advised.

Dr. Elaine Nsoesie, an assistant professor of global health at Boston University, commented “I can see how some of these tips can be difficult to follow. For example, if you are angry or frustrated about an issue, you want to express that feeling, and speaking is one way of doing that.” She added, “It’s also hard to keep 6 feet of distance at a protest.”

The risks of congregating during a global pandemic shouldn’t keep people from protesting racism, according to dozens of public health and disease experts who signed an open letter in support of the protests. “White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” the letter said.

“Data is showing that blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in many states,” said Nsoesie. “Racism is a social determinant of health. It affects the physical and mental health of blacks in the U.S. So I wouldn’t weigh these crises separately.”

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