Protests in a pandemic present dilemma for scientists

Marcella Nunez-Smith is one of many US epidemiologists who fear that advising protesters to stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19 would undermine the fight against another public health crisis: police brutality. 

The Yale professor said people are trying to fight “twin plagues”, both of which hit the African American community the hardest. One in a thousand black men can expect to be killed by the police, at least twice the overall average, according to a 2019 paper, and the Covid-19 race tracker shows African Americans are almost twice as likely to die from the disease.

“The reality is I don’t think people who live in these communities have luxury of prioritising one over the other,” she said. 

Public health experts fear admonishing protesters for potentially accelerating the spread of the virus in a politically polarised America where their words could be used by leaders to try to stop demonstrations. 

Trained to see science as politically neutral, they are trying to stick to advice to minimise harm, such as advising wearing masks, so they are not dragged into the fray. At the same time, many want to show their support for the people on the streets. 

Tom Inglesby, director of the Center of Health Security at Johns Hopkins, said without a “very compelling reason” public health experts would not be advising gathering at the moment. “This is happening at a time when we have this underlying risk of infection but police violence is its own public health scourge for this country,” he said. 

Editor’s note

The Financial Times is making key coronavirus coverage free to read to help everyone stay informed. Find the latest here.

Ashish Jha, professor of global health at Harvard, said he fears the White House will use the protesters as scapegoats for a rise in cases that would have probably happened anyway. That is because governments have not properly prepared for reopening with enough testing, tracing and isolation procedures. 

“There’s going to be a temptation to blame everything on the protesters when the reality is that large parts of the country were opening up before the protests broke out,” he said. “I think we have to fight against that because I don’t think that’s scientifically credible.” 

Jason Kindrachuk, a professor of microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said public health experts find themselves in a “weird and unfortunate position”.

“We have to try to be empathetic to the message of the protesters, while understanding that we are in our worst-case scenario: being in a global pandemic,” he said. 

Scientists see themselves as “rational and disconnected” so they are not well prepared for the whims of capricious politicians, said Bruce Lewenstein, a science communications professor at Cornell. “Politicians choose when to embrace public health and when to push it away, in the same way they chose allies and enemies in various ways,” he said. 

Public health experts are also well aware that the African American community suffers disproportionately from Covid-19, partly because of a higher prevalence of underlying conditions exacerbated by poverty and racism. 

Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington, said he has seen the impact of racism in his work, when life expectancy differs by 15 years from one neighbourhood to the next, and disparities by race, education and income. 

“I’m very concerned that people could look at this and say, from a public health standpoint, we should stop demonstrations, because it’s a risk for increasing Covid-19,” he said. “In my opinion, racism is more dangerous to my country than Covid-19.” 

The high rates of African Americans dying from Covid-19 are partly because of conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, but also owing to a lack of access to healthcare and the community being more likely to leave the house to work as essential workers. 

Dr Nunez-Smith said it was “hypocritical at its core” to expect protesters to stay at home, when many are going to work every day in nursing homes and grocery stores. She said public health experts failed people by not having an alternative message for those who have to go out, such as how to stay safe on the bus or if you do not have your own bedrooms. 

“In many of these communities the idea of ‘Stay home, stay safe’ was never reality for them anyway,” she said.