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Mass protests that have erupted over police brutality against black people in America raise concerns about the risk of coronavirus spread. But some health experts, even when calling for caution, said they support the demonstrations – because racism also poses a serious health risk.
Tens of thousands of people, masked and not masked, have crowded the streets of Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Ky. And other cities during the week since George Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. They are the largest public gatherings in the United States since the pandemic forced widespread shutdowns, and many local officials warned of a possible peak in new cases in one or two weeks.
“The risk of transmission is lower in open spaces, but wherever there is a collection, there is still the risk of transmitting the virus,” Dr. Elaine Nsoesie, assistant professor of global health at Boston University.
Health experts urged protesters not to sing and scream to reduce the threat of transfer from person to person. And they warned that police tactics such as tear gas and pepper spray could exacerbate the situation by asking people to cough and suck for air.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued a list of tips for protesters to lower their risk of being hit by COVID-19, such as covering their faces and staying in small groups.
“Don’t scream; use signs and sound makers instead,” division of the Council.
Nsoesie said that while she agrees with the feeling, “I can see how some of these tips can be difficult to follow. For example, if you are angry or frustrated with a problem, you want to express that feeling and talking is a way to do it . “
She added, “It’s also difficult to keep 6 feet away during a protest.”
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser said she is worried about how consecutive days of protests could trigger an influx of COVID-19 cases. Huge demonstrations began in the nation’s capital on Friday – the same day Bowser lifted orders at home and eased the rules for suspension.
The city still limits the gatherings to a maximum of ten people. But in the streets around the White House, that cap is regularly overrun with orders of magnitude.
“I am so concerned that I urge everyone to consider their exposure if they need to isolate themselves from their family members when they return home and if they need to be tested, because we have worked very hard to close the curve,” Bowser said on NBC: s Meet the press.
But the risks of gathering during a global pandemic should not stop people from protesting against racism, according to dozens of public health and disease experts who signed an open letter in support of the protests.
“White supremacy is a deadly public health issue that precedes and contributes to COVID-19,” the letter states.
Originally written by experts on infectious diseases at the University of Washington, the letter cited a number of systemic problems, from the disproportionately high rate of black people being killed by US police to differences in life expectancy and other important categories – including black Americans’ higher coronavirus death rate.
“Data shows that black and Latin Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in many states,” said Nsoesie, who did not belong to the letter signing when NPR contacted her. “Racism is one of the reasons why this difference exists.”
She continued, “Racism is a social determinant of health. It affects the physical and mental health of blacks in the United States. So I would not weigh these crises separately.”
The local authorities should not break up tight demonstrations “in the form of maintaining public health,” the experts said in their open letter. They urged law enforcement agencies not to use tear gas, smoke and other irritants and said they could make people more susceptible to infection and worsen existing health conditions.
Doctors also confirmed the potential for COVID-19 cases to rise in the coming days, and urged the public health organization to increase access to care and testing in affected communities.