Is It Safe to Protest? What 10 Public Health Experts Want You to Know About Protesting in the Middle of a Pandemic

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 frontlines 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

“I’m concerned about mass gatherings in the midst of a pandemic. It’s unfortunate that we’re in a situation where there’s a spontaneous civil rights uprising that happens to coincide with a pandemic. There’s a lot we don’t know yet about how these protests will affect transmission, but it would be surprising if there aren’t new infections attributable to the protests. They have some things going for them in the sense that the gatherings are outdoors, where we know transmission is less likely to happen than indoor, and most protesters seem to be wearing masks. But it’s pretty difficult to maintain distance from people in a crowd… There will be important scientific questions to answer around whether the protests have increased transmission, and if they did, what factors contributed to that.”—Julia Marcus, Ph.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute

“There’s certainly concern about increased exposure of the protestors out right now, and [especially] those not wearing masks. And I understand that in terms of the long term impact, because a large share of the individuals that are protesting are from the communities that are currently being hit hardest by the pandemic. And so that is definitely a concern as a public health professional.”—Regina Davis Moss, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate executive director of Health Policy and Practice at the American Public Health Association

2. But public health messaging hasn’t actually changed.

“Public health has not backtracked at all. We said there’s a high risk of transmission, we said there’s a high risk with crowds, we said protesting is dangerous. People are making these comparisons: ‘You guys said stuff about protests back in April, but you’re not saying stuff about protests now.’ In April, we were at the peak of our epidemic. Now we have already prematurely reopened. And when we reopened, as public health experts we said, ‘This is how we mitigate risks when we open too early.’ We’re doing the same thing with protests, saying, ‘This is how you mitigate risks when you are protesting.’ And we’re providing the same advice.”—Abraar Karan M.D, M.P.H., internal medicine doctor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, currently working on state level COVID-19 response at Massachusetts Department of Public Health

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