To my knowledge, everyone who subscribes to this newsletter is a decent, thinking human being, so I know I'm not going to get any pushback when I say that, unquestionably, Black lives matter, the BLM movement is important, and racial disparity in policing is just the tip of the iceberg of racial justice issues we need to address in this country.
Let's talk, though, about a question I know lots of people have: Isn't it dangerous to be out in the streets protesting during a pandemic?
I'm going to preface this issue with the caveat that I have not become any more of a public health expert in the last two weeks than I have been for the past several months. So, you know. Absorb this information and analysis accordingly.
Like lots of you, my reaction to the new momentum and sudden mainstream popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement this summer (I'm not sure why it took this long, but better late than never) was a strong YES PLEASE THANK YOU LET'S DO THIS followed by an immediate Oh s**t though, the 'rona. Weren't we just judging people for going out to protest pandemic lockdowns, like, five minutes ago? Am I a hypocrite?
To be completely fair, I am probably a little bit of a hypocrite in that I think it's great when people protest for things I support and annoying if necessary to tolerate when people protest for things with which I disagree because I guess the First Amendment is for everyone and not just cool people. But there's a lot more to this question than just "I agree with these protests; therefore, they are acceptable."
First of all, it's important to note that racism is a public health crisis, too. And I don't mean that in a figurative, flowery "racism breaks our hearts and hurts our feelings" kind of way — there are literal disparities in health and life expectancy between Black and white people in this country. Like, there is extensive data from actual research. Racism has officially been declared a public health crisis in a number of places in the U.S., including here in Wisconsin. Black people are also significantly more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, a disparity that is a result of systemic racism (for lots of reasons, but off the top of my head: Black workers are more likely to be in "essential" service jobs, the ripple effect of generations of workplace and educational discrimination; Black patients are also more likely to have comorbidities that are rooted in historical trauma and lack of access to care).
Black Americans are more than twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Americans. They're also more likely than white Americans to be blind, hospitalized, or diagnosed with diabetes or colorectal cancer. Black women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer, and they have a maternal mortality rate that's astronomically higher than that of white women. (And yes, racism plays a role in these outcomes, especially among Black women.) And that's before we get into disparities in education, access to housing and capital, treatment in the justice system (Black and white people use cannabis at roughly the same rates, but guess who's more likely to get arrested?) etc., etc.
Bottom line? The picture of public health for Black Americans was not good even before the arrival of the novel coronavirus, so "but you might get sick" is not a particularly compelling reason to forgo this opportunity for change.
Of course as soon as I got done writing this, I found this Atlantic link that says it all much better. Ignore everything I wrote above and read this instead.
Second, in addition to Black Lives Matter being a public health issue in its own right, there has been an effort at a lot of these protests to try to mitigate the spread. Masks are encouraged, people are carrying hand sanitizer. We did not see this at the haircut protests (although we did see some Confederate flags and angry white people carrying large firearms). Heat, humidity and open air may also pump the brakes on transmission, so the fact that it's summer helps. (It would also help more if police departments would stop firing chemical agents into these crowds while we're trying to keep everyone's bodily fluids contained and refrain from arresting peaceful protesters when correctional facilities are known virus hot spots BUT I DIGRESS.) From what I've seen, lots of people are trying to protest as safely as possible.
Of course, we won't really know for a few weeks whether there will have been a spike or spikes in COVID cases tied to BLM protests, and even if we do, it's not like it will happen universally in every community where there have been protests. So far, it appears there haven't been a lot of protest-related outbreaks (nor were there after the "I want a haircut" protests, to be fair). Some experts have noted that participants have largely been wearing masks and theorized that masks may actually be more important than physical distancing. Where outbreaks are being seen, some are being traced to events like parties with no masks or distancing; others are in states that had few cases, reopened and are just now seeing their first significant increases.
What we know about this virus at any given time is already a week or two out of date by the time it's brand-new, so it's too early to say whether any of this summer's protests have sparked outbreaks so far. Just like everything we do right now, protesting exists on a continuum of risk that has to be weighed with potential benefits. Gathering in a large group is thought to be high risk; data now indicates that being outside, in warm and humid weather, wearing masks, likely mitigates that risk. And the benefit, at this point, appears to be significant, as the nation is actually having a serious conversation about systemic racism and policing in a way that I haven't seen in my lifetime.
As with everything else related to this pandemic, absent clear leadership, we've got to weigh the factors ourselves and make our own decisions. I have a child with a chronic health condition, so we've mostly been staying home and making financial contributions, but we're also planning for one of us to take our six-year-old, who is very interested in the protests, to an event where she can participate in a way that we feel is safe. (We tried and failed to make it to a march near our house, but don't doubt her commitment; this kid walked about two miles on a hot night at bedtime before we realized the march we were trying to meet was moving more slowly than we'd planned, and then she walked almost all the way home and only needed a piggyback ride for the last six blocks, and she says she's still up for doing it again.)
So, back to the original question: Isn't it dangerous to be out in the streets protesting during a pandemic? Possibly. Certainly it's a higher risk activity than staying home. We won't know for a while whether the protests lead to a spike in COVID cases. But knowing that there is a risk of contracting a fatal disease, and knowing that this disease takes Black lives at more than twice the rate it kills white patients, think about just how angry and frightened and fed up people have to be to accept that risk in the hope that they can finally bring about meaningful change.