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The Public Health Hypocrites

By encouraging people to engage in protests where social distancing is not practiced, some doctors are contributing to the higher rate of COVID-19 among the Black population that they profess to abhor.

There is a rumor going around on social media that the pandemic is over. That isn’t the case, but you’d never know it from public health officials around the country who seem to have tossed social distancing restrictions out in favor of the right to protest.

“A case in point is a recent article in Slate that details an open letter from infectious disease experts at the University of Washington, who write that “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 has been signed by more than 1,000 medical experts from around the country.

Wait. Isn’t there a pandemic on?

While pictures of the protests and riots show some demonstrators wearing masks, many are not, and few are maintaining social distancing. Crowded conditions with a lot of physical activity and yelling would seem to be ripe for transmission of a very communicable disease that travels through the air on aerosol droplets of saliva.

Yet many doctors, such as Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor of environmental health and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins, argue that the risk of spreading the virus is worth it.

Similarly, Dr. Abraar Karan of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School tweeted that he had concerns about the protests but “the status quo wasn’t going to stop COVID-19 either.”

The logic is explained in the open letter which states the doctors’ belief that “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.” The letter goes on to claim that “Black people” are endangered from Coronavirus because of the effect of “long-standing systems of oppression and bias which have subjected people of color to discrimination in the healthcare setting, decreased access to
medical care and healthy food, unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration, exposure to pollution and noise,
and the toxic effects of stress.”

The letter notes that “Black people are also more likely to develop COVID-19” and that they “are diagnosed later in the disease course and have a higher rate of hospitalization, mechanical ventilation, and death.” The signers consider this difference “yet another lethal manifestation of white supremacy.”

The signatories go on to say, “Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19.”

Why, then, are the public health experts arguing that people should take it to the streets?

“To the extent possible,” the doctors write, “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.”

So, these doctors argue that protesting is “vital” in this case. But don’t worry, they don’t support all protests. The letter clarifies, “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.”

So these doctors only support protesting in a pandemic if it is a cause that they feel good about. Unfortunately, as Ben Shapiro is fond of saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

And COVID-19 is a fact of life. It is a virus, which also does not care about your feelings.

These doctors are doing the public in general – and the many many Black people involved in the protests in particular – a disservice by pretending that the demonstrations will resolve the issue of police brutality and the specter of racism. Protests are more about feeling like you are doing something than actually accomplishing anything. (And I say this as someone who demonstrated with the Tea Party during the Obama era and who has taken part in pro-life demonstrations.)

The letter does suggest that demonstrators maintain a six-foot distance, wear masks, and take other precautions, but these mitigation strategies seem to have been used at few, if any, protests in the US (unlike this protest in Israel back in April). By encouraging people to engage in protests where social distancing is not practiced, the doctors are contributing to the higher rate of COVID-19 among the Black population that they profess to abhor.

In doing so, these doctors put hypocrisy on display and undermine their credibility. Why should people who want to open businesses, schools, or churches listen to the doctors’ recommendations to stay closed or social distance if they are telling people to protest in the street? Businesses can use the same social distancing restrictions that they recommend for protesters and can probably do so more effectively.

Admittedly, there are a few additional factors to consider. There has long been speculation that COVID-19 will be a seasonal bug that could be less dangerous in the summer months. Likewise, many parts of the country are experiencing a flattened curve that could mean that there fewer infected people to be out protesting and spreading the disease. Finally, outside activities in fresh air are probably generally safer than being in a crowded indoor space.

On the other hand, many of those possibilities are just theories at this point. If the curve has been flattened, we may still see a spike after the protests. Densely populated urban areas like those where most protests are occurring are more susceptible to transmission of the virus than rural areas.

It should also be noted that not all public health experts are signing off on demonstrations. One of the most prominent doctors to stand firm on the need for social distancing is none other than Anthony Fauci. Remember him?

In an interview on Friday with the Washington, DC radio station WTOP, Fauci said, “Every time I hear about or see the congregation of large crowds at a time and geographic area where there is active infection transmission, it is a perfect set-up for the spread of the virus in the sense of creating these blips that might turn into some surges. So I get very concerned.” 

“There certainly is a risk, I would say that with confidence, when you see the congregation of crowds,” Fauci continued, “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.”  

It is too early to tell whether the demonstrations will spark a new wave of COVID-19 infections, but there is a significant risk of a new outbreak. For doctors, that should be the primary focus. As Dr. Fauci warns, even if medical experts are sympathetic to the aims of the protesters, their role as health professionals is to fight disease not advocate for social justice. While racism may be a public health threat in one sense, the Coronavirus is a public health threat in an even more real and urgent sense.

“It is a difficult situation,” Fauci said. “We have the right to peaceably demonstrate, and the demonstrators are exercising that right…it’s important to exercise your constitutional rights to be able to demonstrate, but it’s a delicate balance because the reasons for demonstrating are valid. And yet, the demonstration itself puts one at an additional risk.”

Racism and police brutality aren’t going away. Neither is COVID-19. As a nation, we need to fight all three. That means not jettisoning social distancing for political correctness.

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