If you can remember that long ago, the only protesters defying Covid-19 lockdowns in the United States were small crowds of roughnecks from flyover country waving flags and brandishing placards at State capitals.
Nonetheless, petty incidents like this still outraged bioethicists and public health experts. Writing in PennLive, a Pennsylvania blog, four of them, including the nationally-known bioethicist Art Caplan, argued that those protesters were freeloading on the sacrifices made by people who observed lockdown restrictions.
They had little sympathy for them if they fell ill with the coronavirus: “If the protesters can’t be persuaded that they are wrong and their behavior is dangerous, they should own up to their political commitment and sign and carry a pledge stating they decline all medical care to treat Covid-19, should they fall ill if resources are being rationed.”
That was then.
Now, crowds of tens of thousands have gathered to protest the appalling tragedy of the death of George Floyd in cities across the country. Most of them are ignoring social distancing. Hospitals can expect a gigantic spike in coronavirus cases.
So are these protesters freeloaders? Nope. They’re heroes – according to 1,300 public health and infectious diseases experts, along with community stakeholders. Lockdown critics may deserve to die without ventilators, but protesters against racism should be encouraged, praised and supported. The public health response “must be wholly different from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders”.
“White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” they write. “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.”
This is a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” moment for these American experts, the triumph of virtue-signalling over virtue. States should “prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest [and should] provide increased access to testing and care for people in the affected communities, especially when they or their family members put themselves at risk by attending protests.”
A few weeks ago, violating curfews was a crime. Now it’s almost a patriotic duty.
Art Caplan even had the cheek to give a thumbs-up to the protests despite the danger. “I’m not sure they’re gonna be socially distant– that’s pretty hard in a demonstration, so I get that,” he told WGBH in Boston. “But you should be doing all that you can, and remember: it isn’t just making the group sick, it’s bringing it home, the virus.”
In other words, even though 100,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, we’re cool with a lot more of them dying.
For many Americans — already suspicious of self-righteous experts — this is sure to confirm their misgivings.
Over the past three months the economy has been trashed, millions have lost their jobs, lives have been turned upside down – on the advice of experts. In the reassuring words of an Australian expert:
Our leaders and senior public health officials are receiving some of the best medical and public health advice that is available, informed by people who have been working on the possibility of this very scenario for years. I would appeal, therefore, to all commentators that we trust in our leaders, noting that they are being advised by some of the best experts in the world.
Rather than showcasing the experts’ repudiation of racism, this letter exposes their irresponsibility. It undermines the strategy of compulsory social distancing and lockdowns. Its message is that quarantine regulations are, and probably always were, political – you’re allowed to ignore them if you support the right cause.
This is sure to infuriate people who lost their jobs (not essential) or who were prevented from going to church (not essential). But you can have rallies to protest racism (essential). Mass gatherings but not Mass. What a great election year slogan! What are these guys smoking? Are they really working for President Trump?
And one more thing.
All of those experts should fall on their knees and pray fervently for a spike. If there isn’t one, that means that their draconian policies were a gigantic con. Maybe they’ll end up looking for work along with the 35 million people whom they helped to put out of a job.
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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