The protests over the death of George Floyd have brought to the surface a good example of why so many in the general public no longer trust what public health professionals are saying about the coronavirus pandemic. The information being given to us is confusing and ever-changing. Now the information is being filtered through the lens of social justice activism.
Many in the medical and scientific community have publicly come out in support of Black Lives Matter and the protests dominating the news. It’s a free country, that’s their right to individually do so but it is quite another thing for their personal opinions to affect public health recommendations. Last week I wrote about White Coats for Black Lives in Houston and members of the Texas Medical Centers joining in on the BLM march. At the time, the mayor’s spokeswoman offered up an interesting opinion – the death of a black man in police custody is “a public health crisis.” The talking points have been established.
Protesting during a pandemic is doable if the cause is righteous, that’s the message being sent. An open letter signed by 1,300 epidemiologists and public health experts says that “protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.” These professionals specifically say that their support of racial injustice protests does not mean they endorse other gatherings – you know, like protests about stay-at-home orders. The open letter actually says that “COVID-19 among black patients is yet another lethal manifestation of white supremacy.” Wow. Take that, white people.
Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives. Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.
Apparently the science changes if a protest is for the right cause. My question is a simple one – if COVID-19 affects the black community in greater numbers than others, as the data shows due mostly to underlying medical conditions, why would the professionals be encouraging protests comprised in large numbers of black people? Does that make sense?
Example two is one of the scientists from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). They, too, have written a letter. Scientists from the philanthropic organization funded by Zuckerberg but separate from Facebook are none too pleased that the evil Orange Man is allowed to post freely on Facebook without censorship. They long for some authoritarian action (stricter policy enforcement) to be taken against the President of the United States because he spreads “inaccurate information and incendiary language contrary to CZI’s mission to “build a healthier, just, and more inclusive future.” I bet you can guess which statement, in particular, offended them the most.
The list of signatories includes professors from more than 60 leading research institutions, including Harvard University, Stanford University, and University of California San Francisco (UCSF), as well as one Nobel laureate.
“As scientists, we are dedicated to investigating ways to better our world,” the letter says. “The spread of deliberate misinformation and divisive language is directly antithetical to this goal and we are therefore deeply concerned at the stance Facebook has taken,” on policing content.
The letter calls out one policy stance in particular: Zuckerberg’s decision to allow President Trump to post, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” on Facebook’s platform, a reference to the protests around the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. The scientists argue that the message clearly flouts the company’s rules against inciting violence.
“Thus, like many, we were disconcerted to see that Facebook has not followed their own policies in regards to President Trump,” the letter says.
A third example comes from Dr. Fauci and the CDC. Separately they have sent messages that large protests will likely produce a spike in coronavirus cases. Fauci said Friday that protests are “the perfect set-up” for spreading COVID-19. Fauci was sure to put into his warning that the protesters have a constitutional right to do so “because the reasons for demonstrating are valid.” Thanks, Doc. Validity doesn’t override the danger to the public though, does it? Also, he mentions that tear gas and pepper spray make people cough and sneeze, thus increasing the possibility of transmitting the virus.
Fauci emphasized that while demonstrators have both a constitutional right and a good reason to protest, he noted that people gathering in close proximity, shouting and chanting, and possibly being exposed to tear gas or pepper spray – crowd-controlling irritants that make people cough, sneeze, and rub their eyes — increases the risk of transmitting the virus.
“There certainly is a risk, I would say that with confidence, when you see the congregation of crowds,” he said, “particularly in a situation where you have a lot of confusion and a little bit of chaos, people running back and forth, taking their masks off, being close in proximity, that does pose a risk.”
The director of the CDC told a House panel Thursday that “I do think there is a potential, unfortunately, for this to be a seeding event.”
So, there we are. Public trust is eroding because the story is constantly changing and public health officials are picking winners and losers on the subject of protests. Who can blame folks that protested on behalf of small business owners and church members for being angry that they were penalized while mass protests take over cities across the country? Why did a choice have to be made between those protesting over economic and personal freedom issues and those seeking social justice?