Charles Agyemang, who specializes in ethnic and migrant health inequalities at the University of Amsterdam, has long studied how social factors impact health. Lately, he’s focused on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on racial and ethnic minorities in places like the UK, the US and the Netherlands.
So, when he saw the protests mounting across the globe in response to George Floyd’s death, including in his city — Amsterdam — he understood the public outcry.
He’d seen the disturbing images of what happened to Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes.
“I think that people do have a right to protest because I think that, personally, as a minority, seeing what is happening, not only as a minority, I mean, ordinary human beings seeing what is happening, is just not right.”
“I think that people do have a right to protest because I think that, personally, as a minority, seeing what is happening, not only as a minority, I mean, ordinary human beings seeing what is happening, is just not right,” Agyemang said.
That’s a position echoed by many health care professionals as thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks, from Philadelphia to Bristol, to demonstrate against police brutality and systemic racism. It may seem counterintuitive — large gatherings can be a recipe for new waves of the coronavirus — but many working in the medical field say racism and the pandemic are intertwined.
They also stress the need to take precautions to minimize the risks of attending big rallies.
“So, it’s a delicate balance I would say, that needs to be struck,” Agyemang said, emphasizing that it’s important for people who protest to try and social distance. “I think that something needs to be done. We know that, actually, discrimination also has a huge impact on health.”
Dr. Oxiris Barbot, New York City’s health commissioner, says she wants to see equity and supports people’s right to protest.
“It has been really heartening to see the degree to which other countries have been protesting against racism,” she said. “My hope is that that will bring all of us, as a world, that much closer.”
That includes wearing a mask, using alcohol-based hand sanitizer, maintaining as much social distance as possible, staying around people you know who don’t have symptoms, and finding creative ways to make noise — such as with noisemakers instead of shouting, which can generate viral particles, she said.
Barbot and others also worry about the law enforcement side of protests: tear gas and pepper spray can create more dangerous situations and increase the risks of the spread of the new coronavirus, as can being arrested and confined in close quarters.
Law enforcement officers don’t always wear masks.
She says people can also take action right after a protest or large gathering to help reduce the potential harms.
“We want people to make sure they wash their hands, make sure that they remove their face coverings in a safe way — which is you remove your face covering, you put it aside, then you wash your hands — because, you know, if individuals are going back to households where they have, let's say, someone who is over 65, someone who may have an underlying condition, we don't want them to take a risk in exposing their loved one to COVID-19,” Barbot said.
She recommends that anyone who went to a demonstration gets tested three to five days later.
“If there are any concerns about whether or not they may be developing symptoms, the best thing that they can do is to separate themselves until they get their test results or until at least 10 days have elapsed.”
“If there are any concerns about whether or not they may be developing symptoms, the best thing that they can do is to separate themselves until they get their test results or until at least 10 days have elapsed,” she said.
Based on real-time hospital data so far, Barbot said the city has not observed an uptick in cases from when the protests erupted at the end of May. That might take a few more weeks to play out.
Last week, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, described protesting during the pandemic as risky and encouraged people to wear masks, but prefaced that by saying “almost everyone understands the need to be able to express your constitutional right, to be able to demonstrate in a peaceful way against something that is really a very important social issue.”
Jamie Slaughter-Acey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, is also concerned about new outbreaks of the coronavirus, but that didn’t stop her from visiting the spot where Floyd died, with her 6-year-old daughter.
“It had tables in front of it, and it was like hand sanitizer stations. There are messages about trying to be as safe as possible,” Slaughter-Acey said, adding that it was emotional for her. “All along that you see people in the community celebrating the life of George Floyd and paying their respects to George Floyd.”
It might at first seem counterintuitive that public health leaders around the globe would not only support people demonstrating during the pandemic, but might even take part, despite knowing the health risks.
Uchechi Mitchell, a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said racial inequities are closely connected to the pandemic and how it’s playing out across the globe.
“I don’t want it to come off as though the public health profession doesn’t care as much about the coronavirus pandemic.”
“I don’t want it to come off as though the public health profession doesn’t care as much about the coronavirus pandemic,” she said.
Mitchell is one of more than 1,200 public health professionals who signed a petition supporting protests against racism. The petition also included suggestions for how to minimize the spread of COVID-19.
Even the World Health Organization has come out in support of a global movement against racism. For many public health experts, like Mitchell, these dual efforts are one and the same.
“Nobody’s ignoring the fact that we have this virus that’s plaguing our communities. But this is a pandemic, it starts and kind of has an end,” Mitchell said. “Whereas racism has been here for generations upon generations upon generations, and we’re still fighting for this end.”