Protesting during a pandemic is a risk. But so is the status quo of police violence.
America’s crises are boiling over, one into another. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, masses of people are taking to the streets to protest police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and other victims of racial violence.
These two stories are linked. They are both public health stories. The link is systemic racism.
“The same broad-sweeping structural racism that enables police brutality against black Americans is also responsible for higher mortality among black Americans with Covid-19,” Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist working on the Covid-19 response, tells Vox.
“One in every 1,000 black men and boys can expect to be killed by police in this country,” she says. “To me, this clearly illustrates why police brutality is a public health problem; anything that causes mortality at such a scale is a public health problem.”
As the Covid-19 crisis continues, it’s also become clear that black communities, and other communities of color, have suffered a disproportionate burden. Law professors Ruqaiijah Yearby and Seema Mohapatra recently explained this in detail in the Journal of Law and Bioscience:
1/ Those who earned big platforms from #covid19– your silence on racism will be deafening.
They are deeply interlinked
Until the deepest inequities are addressed— #racism being at the center of those…
— Abraar Karan (@AbraarKaran) May 31, 2020
Angry commenters are trying to “gotcha” me on this tweet so let me be clear:
Yes, I condemned the anti-lockdown protests. Yes, I support the #BlackLivesMatter protests. No, those aren’t contradictory views. COVID is a public health emergency. So is racism. We need to fight both. https://t.co/ilZHpcS5Te
— Ellie Murray (@EpiEllie) May 31, 2020
For the record, my personal opinion is that some injustices are too great to remain silent, where risks become acceptable because the damage they cause outweigh the benefits of not taking them. Epidemic racism meets that threshold. #BlackLivesMatter
— Dr. Angela Rasmussen (@angie_rasmussen) June 1, 2020
The forces that put many minority communities at risk during a pandemic have also put them at risk of police violence. Years of diminished economic opportunity, of marginalization, of structural racism, have led to both.
“In almost any way you measure it, the American criminal justice system is prejudiced against black Americans, and black people are much more likely to be subjected to state-sanctioned violence in the US compared to white Americans,” Vox’s Dylan Scott writes. Similarly, by almost every measure, black Americans face much larger risks when it comes to public health. They suffer heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and obesity in disproportionate numbers, too.
Right now, the news is filled with images of mass gatherings at a time when social distancing should still be exercised. And more Covid-19 infections may come out of it. This is rightfully concerning. But that concern can exist alongside the concern of violence and death that black communities face, pandemic or not.
Confronting the racism that puts black Americans at higher risk of dying at the hands of police means confronting the racism that puts black Americans at higher risk of dying from Covid-19. There are policies and ideas that can be implemented to help reduce police violence. There are also policies and ideas that can ease the coronavirus burden on black and minority communities (Yearby and Mohapatra discuss more in their paper, which you can read here).
But, at least for now, the goal of the protests is the same goal as the response to the pandemic: saving lives.