Public-health experts are weighing these same risks at a population level, and many have come to the conclusion that the health implications of maintaining the status quo of white supremacy are too great to ignore, even with the potential for an increase in coronavirus transmission from the protests. Some have asked, How many new infections from the protests will public-health experts tolerate? But this is not a contest. Questions like this are once again a call to color blindness, to stop seeing the health effects of systemic racism as something worthy of attention during the pandemic. In this utilitarian calculus, new coronavirus infections from the protests will always be greater than the health impacts of systemic racism because what matters most was decided even before the math was done. Others have suggested that even if racism matters for public health, we have no proof that the protests are the antidote to the poison. Although there is no way to quantitatively evaluate this question right now, supporting the protests is more than an “assertion of faith.” It’s a recognition that social mobilization has historically played a significant role in improving public health. In fact, “sanitary crusades”—revival-style conventions that demanded cleaner cities to protect against devastating epidemics—helped stimulate the formation of the American Public Health Association in 1872.
To be clear, the protests are not risk-free with respect to viral transmission—nor have public-health experts suggested they are. Parades in Philadelphia and Detroit in 1918, for example, resulted in the spread of influenza. Being outdoors reduces the risk of transmission compared with most indoor events and interactions, and unlike the anti-lockdown protests, most attendees at the anti-racism protests seem to have worn masks. But any large gathering could spread the coronavirus, especially when social distancing becomes difficult or impossible. Even more concerning are the actions of police officers that are increasing the risk of transmission and have largely gone unchecked, including kettling (corralling protesters in close quarters by surrounding them on all sides), use of tear gas, close contact while beating protesters with batons, tearing off people’s masks to pepper-spray them, crowding protesters onto buses, and detaining people in jails, where the coronavirus spreads like wildfire.