The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus

Public-health experts should strive to provide a neutral accounting of risk.

Demonstrators at a protest against police brutality in Minneapolis.
Stephen Maturen / Getty

For weeks before the egregious police killing of George Floyd sparked protests, public-health experts and much of the press were singularly focused on COVID-19. News coverage of the pandemic frequently cast protests against stay-at-home orders and the closures of businesses and churches as risky, if not irresponsible. “Public-health officials say the coronavirus can easily be spread by people packed together, like, say, at a protest,” NPR’s David Folkenflik told listeners in April. “Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and others have cheered the protests—usually from the safety of their own home studios—yet have done so without explicitly noting the risks involved.”

Skeptical coverage of anti-shutdown protests and scolding of those who failed to socially distance abounded. Later, when a video of a social gathering at an outdoor pool in the Ozarks went viral, news articles quoted elected leaders and health officials describing the event as reckless.

Then mass protests against police killings began. Many protesters wore masks and kept a distance between themselves and other participants—but others left their faces uncovered, traveled in large groups, crowded together, and shouted for hours. Police arrested many, transporting them in crowded vehicles to enclosed spaces. Some news outlets published articles specifically noting these facts, but most stories about the protests did not mention potential risk at all. Commentators who did raise concerns about disease transmission sometimes sounded apologetic. “It seems almost weird to say this,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted, “but the coronavirus hasn’t changed, and hasn’t gone anywhere. Very hopeful outdoor activity + warmer weather + mask wearing can avoid huge clusters, but real worried.”

Why did it seem “almost weird” to highlight the ongoing danger of a virus that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and is likely to kill many thousands more in the coming months? Not because gathering en masse to protest police killings is any less dangerous than gathering to party in the Ozarks or protest church closures, but because it strikes a lot of journalists and health experts (quite reasonably) as more urgent and justified. For some people who are sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, giving any fodder to those intent on criticizing them feels like a failure of solidarity.

But those who genuinely care about public health should not conflate the factual question of how dangerous mass protest may be during this pandemic with value judgments about whether the risk is worth it. Nevertheless, such an approach is ascendant. This week, hundreds of people in the public-health community signed an open letter, first drafted by infectious-disease experts at the University of Washington, that explicitly counsels an ideological double standard on protests.

The letter noted that when “heavily armed and predominantly white protesters” entered the Michigan State Capitol late last month, “infectious disease physicians and public health officials publicly condemned these actions and privately mourned the widening rift between leaders in science and a subset of the communities that they serve.” But the letter drew a distinction between those protests and more recent ones responding to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans by police. “A public health response to these demonstrations is also warranted, but this message must be wholly different from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders,” the signatories declared. “Infectious disease and public health narratives adjacent to demonstrations against racism must be consciously anti-racist, and infectious disease experts must be clear and consistent in prioritizing an anti-racist message.”

Forget public-health information––these experts are conveying a public-health narrative. The letter’s most telling passage:

Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19. To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.

Notice the weaselly construction. The signatories “do not condemn these gatherings as risky” not because the potential risk for disease transmission is lower than at the Michigan protests, but because they are unwilling to criticize an anti-racist gathering, no matter how risky it might be. The implication is that protests could succeed, leading to less racism and improving public health.

NPR represented this line of thinking to the masses by tweeting, “Dozens of public health and disease experts have signed an open letter in support of the nationwide anti-racism protests.” A casual Twitter user could be forgiven for inferring that joining a crowd of protesters carries little risk of catching or spreading disease. But great uncertainty remains—which is why public-health experts spent weeks warning about what might happen if society reopens too quickly.

NPR’s article on concern that protests could spread the coronavirus and the public-health experts’ letter contain a remarkable juxtaposition. The NPR writer Bill Chappell quotes an elected official, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, as saying, “I’m so concerned about [the risk] that I’m urging everybody to consider their exposure if they need to isolate from their family members when they go home and if they need to be tested, because we have worked very hard to blunt the curve.”

Immediately afterward, the article declares, “But the risks of congregating during a global pandemic shouldn’t keep people from protesting racism, according to dozens of public health and disease experts who signed an open letter in support of the protests.” In other words, the politician is emphasizing the epidemiological risk, while disease experts stress the potential political gains.

I have long regarded police abuses as among the most urgent issues facing the United States and believed that, if more Americans objected to unjust police killings, vital reforms could ensue. Peaceful protesting for this righteous cause is a brave and defensible decision—especially given the participants who diligently wear masks and doubts about how easily COVID-19 spreads in outdoor spaces. Also defensible, though, is the view that mass protests carry risks at least for the medically vulnerable and could burden already-exhausted doctors and nurses. Many Americans who objected to Floyd’s death may still feel understandably torn about what to do.

To help would-be protesters reach an informed judgment, public-health experts and journalists alike should strive to provide a neutral accounting of the risks involved. The blunt truth is that those risks include at least some chance of death and disease on a terrifying scale. Protesters objecting to police killings deserve warnings as blunt as what protesters objecting to shutdowns got, not politeness that leaves them less prepared to stay safe. To frame today’s protests not only as a defensible choice but as a choice validated by experts––as if their expertise somehow encompassed all the trade-offs implicit in the judgment—is to pass politics off as public health.

On matters of life and death, the reinforcement of progressive social-justice narratives should not get in the way of simple truth-telling. And when it does, it will only undermine the influence of those charged with informing Americans about the pandemic. The fallout: More Americans will decline to heed any public-health advice or journalism, seeing it as ideological and hypocritical.