After the brutal killing of black man George Floyd in Minneapolis by police on May 25, demonstrations with tens of thousands of people have erupted across the United States and around the world, from Berlin to Sydney. A common sentiment reported in the American media is that “black people are dying in twin epidemics of coronavirus and racism”.
Even before the tragedy in Minneapolis, it was constantly noted that the death rates amongst blacks were far higher than amongst whites, partly because of poorer living conditions and partly because of pre-existing ailments like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Add to that notorious cases of blacks who died at the hands of police, and you have a tinderbox for rallies and riots.
However, this comes at an awkward moment. Mass demonstrations to protest racism are all but certain to spread the still-undefeated and often lethal coronavirus. People will be flouting lockdown and social distancing laws. What is the ethical thing to do?
Anti-lockdown protesters were denounced by some bioethicists because they endangered public health, but no one is denouncing the #BlackLivesMatter protests. Police and politicians whispered that these gatherings are illegal (because of the pandemic) and dangerous – and then threw up their hands. Some public health experts have even declared that it would be unethical not to support them.
Alexandra Phelan, of Georgetown University, told The Atlantic that the protests were clearly justifiable. “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.”
An open letter by 1,300 public health experts declared: “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.” They recommended that the protesters do their best to observe social distancing – which, apart from wearing masks, is very difficult.
And they condemn people with different political views for violating social distancing:
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.
The letter was drafted by infectious disease experts at the University of Washington, the state where the virus hit hard first.
The demonstrations raise a range of questions. What is a legitimate excuse for ignoring a lockdown? If political protests are permitted, how about religious gatherings, sports events, funerals? Are lockdowns feasible? Do lockdowns work?
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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