At its core, the argument being leveled against public-health experts is that the reason for the protests shouldn’t matter. The coronavirus doesn’t care whether it’s attending an anti-lockdown protest or an anti-racism one. But these two kinds of protests are not equivalent from a public-health perspective. Some critics might argue that the anti-lockdown protests promoted economic activity, which can help stave off the health implications of poverty. (On this count, public-health experts were ahead of the curve: Many—including one of us—were advocating for a massive infusion of assistance to individual Americans as early as March.) But these protests were organized by pro-gun groups that believe the National Rifle Association is too compromising on gun safety. Egged on by the president to “save your great 2nd Amendment,” anti-lockdown protesters stormed government buildings with assault rifles and signs reading COVID-19 is a lie. The anti-lockdown demonstrations were explicitly at odds with public health, and experts had a duty to oppose them. The current protests, in contrast, are a grassroots uprising against systemic racism, a pervasive and long-standing public-health crisis that leads to more than 80,000 excess deaths among black Americans every year.
For some critics, the gravest mistake made by public-health experts was allowing themselves to be sidetracked by politics. Highlighting the health implications of police violence and systemic racism, rather than focusing on the real work of combatting the coronavirus, meant that “political ideology”—that is, anti-racism—“became part of the public-health equation.” But color blindness—or the insistence that race isn’t relevant—reinforces many color-coded inequities, as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva suggests in his book Racism Without Racists. This same insistence, that the protests are purely ideology and politics and therefore irrelevant to public health, is a way of sweeping racial health disparities under the rug once again.
Read: Being black in America can be hazardous to your health
The people who are marching in the streets right now are well aware of the risk of coronavirus transmission. Many of the protesters are from communities of color, which have been hit hardest by the pandemic, and some have lost loved ones to the coronavirus. They are not acting out of ignorance that needs to be corrected by public-health experts. As one protester in Minneapolis said, “Yes, corona is happening. It’s real, it’s deadly. But racism kills way more lives.” The protesters from all over the country are weighing interrelated risks: the coronavirus pandemic, police violence, and centuries of systemic racism that have led to large gaps in life expectancy, health, and wellness between black and white people in the U.S. The health crisis for black Americans didn’t start in 2020. It started in 1619.