Are Protests Unsafe? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What

There is as of yet no firm evidence that protests against police violence led to noticeable spikes in infection rates. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found no overall rise in infections, but could not rule out that infections might have risen in the age demographic of the protesters. Health officials in Houston and Los Angeles have suggested the demonstrations there led to increased infections, but they have not provided data. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has instructed contact tracers not to ask if infected people attended protests.

The 10 epidemiologists interviewed for this article said near-daily marches and rallies are nearly certain to result in some transmission. Police use of tear gas and pepper spray, and crowding protesters into police vans and buses, puts people further at risk.

“In all likelihood, some infections occurred at the protests; the question is how much,” said Professor Lurie. “No major new evidence has emerged that suggests the protests were superspreader events.”

The coronavirus has infected 2.89 million Americans, and at least 129,800 have died.

The virus has hit Black and Latino Americans with a particular ferocity, hospitalizing those populations at more than four times the rate of white Americans. Many face underlying health issues, and are more likely than most Americans to live in densely populated housing and to work on the front lines of this epidemic. As a result, Latinos and Black people are dying at rates well in excess of white Americans.

Mary Travis Bassett, who is African-American, served as the New York City health commissioner and now directs the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University. She noted that even before Covid-19, Black Americans were sicker and died more than two years earlier, on average, than white Americans.

And she noted, police violence has long cast a deep shadow over African-Americans. From the auction block to plantations to centuries of lynchings carried out with the complicity of local law enforcement, blacks have suffered the devastating effects of state power.

She acknowledged that the current protests are freighted with moral complications, not least the possibility that a young person marching for justice might come home and inadvertently infect a mother, aunt or grandparent. “If there’s an elder in the household, that person should be cocooned to the best extent that we can,” Professor Bassett said.

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