Should People be Protesting During COVID19?

This commentary was previously a part of my daily COVID19 analysis on 6/11/2020, but is presented here independently for ease of reference and to avoid re-sharing in each day’s report. As always, my training is not in epidemiology, and I defer to recognized experts for more in-depth explanations. This analysis is an attempt to convey a basic analysis of whether participating in mass protests against systemic racism during the COVID19 pandemic is a safe, responsible, and necessary action at a level that is approachable to an untrained reader.

While I do have concerns that we will see protest-related spread, that’s still a week away before appearing in the data. We’ve seen protesters taking precautions against spread (wearing masks, limiting crowd time, emphasizing open areas, etc.) as well as police tactics that have likely exacerbated spread (tear gas, holding people in confined areas with poor airflow, removal of PPEs from protesters, etc.). It’s impossible to calculate the level of risk present. However, the public health and medical communities are unified around one point on the topic — systemic racism is a public health issue that has immense human, financial, and moral costs, and must be addressed. Further, public health experts are consistent in the message that if people take adequate precautions, the risk in speaking out against racism is outweighed by the benefit. The two issues — COVID19 and racism — are in necessarily intertwined; to quote the open letter from infectious disease experts at the University of Washington: “protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.” This is why you’re seeing so many medical professionals on the front lines of these protests, and why the WHO supports them.