What Needs to Be Understood When Talking About COVID-19 Risks at Protests
Black Americans are at an increased risk of not only getting COVID-19 but also experiencing severe complications from the virus—meaning the pandemic, in itself, is a painful reminder of the very inequalities that people are protesting.
It's been roughly one month since people across the U.S. (and the globe) began protesting the horrific police killing of George Floyd. Their cries of "no justice, no peace!" reflect years, centuries, of disillusionment and readiness for radical change. We heard these same cries throughout America after the brutally unjust killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Natasha McKenna. Now, we cry for not just Floyd, but also Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, and so many more. The names have changed, but the tragedy has not.
It's not new for Americans to practice their right to protest or to demand justice and equality. What is new, however, is COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11. Widespread lockdowns were implemented, travel was obstructed, and group gatherings became virtually non-existent. Then, about two months later, a video of Floyd's killing spread like wildfire across the internet. For the first time in weeks, public interest wasn't wholly centered around COVID-19; instead, people began marching, organizing sit-ins, and delivering powerful speeches about the pandemic that is racism—a pandemic with health consequences that are, in many ways, just as dangerous as the risks posed by COVID-19 or the potential for transmission during a protest or rally. (See: How Racism Affects Your Mental Health)
The Concerns Surrounding Protests Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic
As protests continue alongside the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., some have criticized these mass gatherings and demonstrations, citing fears that protests may be "superspreading" events. "Superspreading" happens when one person infects a large number of people, leading to "both explosive growth early in an outbreak and sustained transmission in later stages," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
These fears aren't totally unwarranted. Participating in a protest typically means gathering in large (and often tightly-packed) groups for prolonged periods of time. Meaning, social distancing becomes all but impossible.
"During the recent wave of protest gatherings, we've witnessed total abandonment of social distancing," says Stephen Berger, M.D., infectious disease expert and founder of the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network (GIDEON). "The center of a large crowd is no different than a sealed-off, unventilated room filled with potentially infected individuals—many holding large signs which will block the flow of clean air."
Plus, when you're chanting, shouting, or even singing—as you might expect to at a protest—you're likely producing more "respiratory droplets" (read: spit) than you would during a regular conversation, notes Amber Noon, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Broomfield, Colorado. These droplets—which could potentially be infected with the virus, regardless of whether you have symptoms—"get passed any time you open your mouth," she explains. And, the more powerful the exhalation (think: shouting, singing, sneezing), the higher the potential for those droplets to spread, she says. (Of course, this is where the importance of wearing a face mask to protests comes in.)
So, if even one carrier of COVID-19 is present at a protest, you could potentially see a "wave" of positive cases among the other protesters in the following two to 14 days, explains Dr. Berger. "Most would begin to experience symptoms five to six days after the event," he says.
That goes for asymptomatic carriers too, BTW. While the WHO states that asymptomatic people with COVID-19 "are much less likely to transmit the virus than those who develop symptoms," the CDC maintains that the risk of asymptomatic transmission compared to symptomatic transmission is still "unclear." (See: Everything You Need to Know About Coronavirus Transmission)
Have Protests Actually Led to More Coronavirus Cases?
The short answer: Surprisingly, no.
At least, that's what early data suggests: In a recent study, researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed anonymous cell phone tracking data (to help determine where and when large crowds were gathering) and local CDC data regarding new COVID-19 cases across 315 cities. They found "no evidence" that protests led to a surge in COVID-19 case growth in any of the cities where protests took place in the more-than-three-week period following the start of the protests in late May, according to the paper. (Reminder: The median incubation period of COVID-19 is about four to five days.) Researchers concluded that the available data simply doesn't support the predictions of negative health consequences related to Black Lives Matter protests.
Echoing those conclusions, Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department in Washington, told NPR that her department has not "been able to connect a single case" to any protests that have happened in her county. Similarly, health officials from cities including Minneapolis, Seattle, Sacramento, Philadelphia, and Boston have all reported no evidence of protest-related coronavirus spikes.
Experts say face masks have been playing a hugely helpful role as a COVID-19 prevention practice. (Learn more: How to Safely Protest During the COVID-19 Pandemic)
Why Activism Is Still Important, Even In the Face of COVID-19
It's true that there are very real, very valid risks to protesting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But the other inescapable truth is that the health consequences of racism are arguably just as dire, and have been for quite some time, as Sandra Shullman, Ph.D., president of the American Psychological Association (APA), noted in a recent statement.
"We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens," said Shullman. "Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders. Moreover, the stress caused by racism can contribute to the development of cardiovascular and other physical diseases." (Related: 11 Ways Black Women Can Protect Their Mental Health During Pregnancy and Postpartum)
If anything, COVID-19 has actually highlighted racial disparities that are already present in the healthcare system, says Eudene Harry, M.D., medical director for the Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center. "African Americans have worse health outcomes for just about every chronic disease well before this pandemic," she explains. "Black people are more likely to live in places where things that contribute to good health—such as fresh fruits and vegetables, nature and fresh air, and access to good healthcare—are limited. There is research to suggest that even if economics were not an issue, there is still a [racial] disparity."
These long-standing systemic inequities have now put many Black people at an increased risk of not only contracting COVID-19 but also experiencing severe complications from the virus, according to the CDC. In fact, the entire BIPOC community is impacted: COVID-19 hospitalization rates are currently highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native individuals, as well as non-Hispanic Black people, followed by Hispanic or Latinx people, according to the agency. Compared to white people, Black people and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native individuals are about five times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, while Hispanic or Latinx people are roughly four times more likely than white people to be hospitalized for the virus, according to the CDC.
Again, systemic inequalities existed long before this latest round of protests or COVID-19, and go well-beyond one virus: Black Americans are statistically less likely to have access to quality education and quality housing. Black people also face higher rates of police brutality and mass incarceration compared to people of other races.
But it is the very context of the coronavirus pandemic that makes the current Black Lives Matter efforts so significant: Protesters are literally risking their lives to demand that American leaders take meaningful action to dismantle systemic racism in this country. "In my opinion, both of these issues [COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests] shine the spotlight on those who are the most vulnerable," notes Dr. Harry.
In other words, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests are not separate issues. If anything, the pandemic is yet another painful example of the vast disparities between white people and BIPOC, not to mention a reminder of the urgency to close these gaps.
COVID-19 aside, remember: The right to protest—while not the only way to support Black Lives Matter—is one of the most valuable tenants of the First Amendment, which in part protects your rights to peacefully assemble and petition the Government to fix grievances, not to mention it's a powerful way to effect change. If you do choose to protest, do so safely and with vigilance about your health and the health of those around you.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.