Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday June 3, 2020
The Protests Will Spread the Coronavirus
The wave of mass protests across the United States will almost certainly set off new chains of infection for the novel coronavirus, experts say.
The virus seems to spread the most when people yell (such as to chant a slogan), sneeze (to expel pepper spray), or cough (after inhaling tear gas). It is transmitted most efficiently in crowds and large gatherings, and research has found that just a few contagious people can infect hundreds of susceptible people around them. The virus can spread especially easily in small, cramped places, such as police vans and jails.
As such, for the past several days, the virus has found new environments in which to spread across the United States. At least 75 cities have seen widespread demonstrations and social unrest as Americans have gathered to protest systemic racism and the killing of George Floyd, the black man who died last week under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. Dozens of cities imposed curfews over the weekend amid widespread looting. It has been among the most turbulent moments of societal upheaval in the U.S. since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
The pandemic and unrest together have trapped the country in a bind. The demonstrations oppose police brutality. But peaceful, masked protesters—and the journalists covering them—have sometimes been met with an overly aggressive police response.
“I don’t think there’s a question of whether there will be spikes in cases in 10 to 14 days,” Mark Shrime, a public-health researcher at Harvard, told me. “With so many protests happening, that are getting so much bigger, I don’t think it’s a question of if, but when and where.”
Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, agrees. “All things considered, there’s little doubt that these protests will translate into increased risk of transmission for COVID-19,” she told me by email.
Yet that risk does not lead Majumder to oppose the protests. “I personally believe that these particular protests—which demand justice for black and brown bodies that have been brutalized by the police—are a necessary action,” she said. “Structural racism has been a public-health crisis for much longer than the pandemic has.” Even the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed black people disproportionately, Majumder told me. While about 13 percent of Americans are black, a quarter of all COVID-19 deaths where the victim’s race is known have befallen black people, according to the COVID Racial Data Tracker.
Alexandra Phelan, a professor of global-health law at Georgetown University, also told me she believed that the protests were justifiable, even amid the public-health crisis. She drew a difference between these protests, against police brutality, and the protests earlier this spring, which opposed mask mandates and social-distancing rules. At the very least, she said, many protesters this weekend were wearing masks, reducing the risk of transmission to the community. (The Atlantic)