What 10 public health experts want you to know about protesting in the middle of a pandemic

By Carolyn L. Todd
June 18, 2020

The conversation about protesting in the midst of a pandemic is becoming more complex and nuanced by the day. Early on, “the focus of public health attention [paid] to the protests was to criticize and see them only in the context of how they may cause increases in transmission,” Ranu S. Dhillon, M.D., a physician in the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, tells SELF.

That context is still, of course, completely relevant. But public health experts and epidemiologists are speaking up more about the other issues that come into play here. “Rather than see the protests as just a transmission risk in parallel to the pandemic,” public health experts are shifting the public discourse to how “the protests and their very focus is central to the dynamics and challenges of the pandemic,” Dr. Dhillon explains.

“Right now, the United States is sitting in the middle of two public health crises. And both COVID-19 and police brutality are disproportionately affecting Black Americans and other marginalized communities here in the U.S.,” Jaime Slaughter-Acey, Ph.D., assistant professor in the division of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, tells SELF. “Every day we’re processing and understanding more about how the outcomes of COVID-19 and police brutality are related by this fundamental cause: systemic racism.”

We spoke to 10 experts in public health and epidemiology about how they are thinking about the complex relationship between protesting, systemic anti-Blackness, police brutality, and the COVID-19 pandemic, through the lens of public health. Many of them make similar points, often offering overlapping perspectives from their positions in the field and/or their personal experience. Here are some of the themes that came up repeatedly, based on excerpts from our conversations. (We chose three quotes for each point that represented the range of responses we received.)

1. Yes, the protests do increase the risk of transmission.

“I have for the past 12 weeks been on those front lines as an infectious disease epidemiologist, promoting social distancing and trying to help people navigate premature reopening and the importance of reentering into social interactions in a slow and cautious way. So, from that perspective, seeing people gathering in mass, of course I worry.” —Amanda Simanek, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health

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