Public health experts, unaccustomed to the spotlight, have really taken a beating lately. As they tirelessly work to unravel the mysteries of the Covid pandemic (and are increasingly burning out), the president of our country has constantly attacked and undermined them—and, lately, so have corporate media.
In a July 6 report, the New York Times seemed bizarrely eager to cast doubt on those experts’ intentions. “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What,” read the headline over Michael Powell's report. The subhead continued the framing of the experts as hypocrites:
Public health experts decried the anti-lockdown protests as dangerous gatherings in a pandemic. Health experts seem less comfortable doing so now that the marches are against racism.
Many readers wouldn’t be terribly surprised at the story, since it’s a curiously late addition to the small flurry of coverage around a letter circulated more than a month ago, signed by more than 1,200 public health experts, that supported the wave of anti-racist protests that erupted around the country after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The letter—which the Times notably did not link to, though it did link to two negative media responses to it—began by recognizing that many public health experts had condemned the white armed protesters who took over the Michigan State Capitol building, who were “protesting stay-home orders and calls for widespread public masking to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
After explaining that “white supremacy is a public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19,” they wrote that while they support staying at home, social distancing and public masking, they
do not condemn [anti-racism] 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.
The letter carefully distinguished this from the protests against stay-at-home orders, which “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.” It continued by offering guidance for protesters and allies to minimize transmission risk at protests, like wearing masks, maintaining distance where possible, staying home when sick and providing hand sanitizer to protesters.
It seems pretty clear: Black people and other people of color are disproportionately hospitalized and dying of the disease, not as a result of some biological difference but because of the ways that systemic racism has put them at greater risk. Therefore, racism is a vital public health issue—both in general, as people of color suffer worse overall health outcomes than white people, and specifically concerning Covid-19.
So it’s clearly not a question of “who” is protesting, as the Times' headline suggests. It does matter very much “what” is being protested. In the case of the anti-lockdown protesters, the entire goal was to make government officials flout public health experts’ recommendations for infection control. Obviously, those actions couldn’t be supported from a public health perspective—not to mention that, given their agenda, most protesters were not wearing masks or keeping distance.
It’s worth noting, too, that experts’ understanding of the novel coronavirus’ transmission has played a role in shifting recommendations. Early on, less was understood about transmission, which is why full lockdowns were encouraged: If people aren’t near each other, they can’t pass the virus to each other, whatever its preferred mode of transmission.
As more research has emerged showing that outdoor activities are far less dangerous, and that masks seem to make a big difference in preventing transmission, experts can make finer-grained recommendations about which activities are higher and lower risk. Since anti-racism protesters were largely compliant with mask wearing, moving around rather than staying in one place, and in many cases attempting to keep distance from others, many experts judged that their outdoor activities were relatively low risk, particularly when weighed against the potential benefits from any outcomes that worked to dismantle systemic racism.
(Note that public health experts are not a monolith—they are individuals with individual perspectives and judgments—and not infallible. The public health experts at the WHO, in the most obvious example of both of these points, clung to their recommendation against universal mask wearing until well after the pandemic was underway—CNN, 3/30/20—and likewise refused to acknowledge mounting evidence pointing to airborne transmission until just this week, under pressure from hundreds of other health experts around the world—Reuters, 7/7/20.)
But like many who came before him (FAIR.org, 6/10/20), the Times' Powell was eager to skim over all these nuances, erasing the public health distinctions between the two kinds of protests. He played up the political distinctions to paint epidemiologists and other health experts as hypocritical, feeding the media narrative that they were “politicizing science.”
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At the time of the letter, other outlets similarly cried foul. “Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance,” huffed Politico (6/4/20). “The Protesters Deserve the Truth About the Coronavirus; Public Health Experts Should Strive to Provide a Neutral Accounting of Risk,” scolded the Atlantic (6/4/20). The right wing, which has been attacking public health experts since the beginning of the pandemic, went predictably nuts; Jonah Goldberg (Dispatch, 6/5/20) went so far as to accuse epidemiologists of “treason.”
Some on the left, too, offered up false arguments to condemn the public health experts who supported the anti-racist protests, arguing that if they counseled everyone to stay at home in the face of the pandemic, at extreme economic and psychological cost, they certainly couldn’t say it’s okay for some to now go out and protest. In a widely-cited essay in the Guardian (6/8/20), Thomas Chatterton Williams (who later spearheaded a letter at Harper’s decrying so-called cancel culture and the “vogue for public shaming” on the left) leaned on ideas of political correctness gone amok to argue that “two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.” Public health experts, he wrote, are “politicizing science” and “have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.”
Glenn Greenwald in the Intercept (6/11/20) was similarly outraged, calling the letter’s distinction between the two kinds of protests
plainly political judgments, not scientific ones, and the shoddy, glaring conflation of them is nothing less than a manipulation, an abuse, of public health credentials. For scientists to purport to dictate which citizens can and cannot safely choose to leave their house — based not on health judgments but on their political ideology — is repressive, and certain to erode the credibility of their profession. Yet this is exactly what they are doing: explicitly and shamelessly.
Again, it’s not about “which citizens” can leave their house, it’s about the purpose of the leaving: Why would public health experts not condemn efforts to pressure governments to rescind public health measures? And it expressly is about health judgments—both about the relatively low risks of sporadic, masked outdoor protests versus the high risks of people going about their normal business, and about the health judgment that protests against racism could improve health outcomes for people of color, during and beyond Covid-19.
Moreover, Greenwald, like Williams, the Atlantic's Conor Friesendorf and others, seems convinced that public health ought to be somehow objective, scientific and neutral, not political. But public health can’t avoid being political. Managing the health of an entire population is done through policy decisions, many of which people will disagree about. Gun control, smoking, obesity—so many of our major public health issues are highly politicized. If we want public health experts to tell us how to maximize our health, we can’t at the same time insist that they only tell us about certain narrow kinds of health outcomes, or health outcomes for certain kinds of people.
Williams and Greenwald appeared less concerned about hypocrisy concerning different kinds of protests and mostly upset about—as Greenwald put it—the apparently sudden deviation from the previous “dictate” from public health experts “that we could not go outside for any reason.” Greenwald wrote:
One of two things is true; either 1) these protests will lead to a significant spike in coronavirus infections and deaths, in which case public health experts should reconcile that outcome with how they could have encouraged and endorsed them; or 2) it will not lead to such a spike, in which case it will appear that the months of extreme, draconian lockdowns—which caused great suffering and deprivation around the world—were excessive, misguided and unwarranted.
First of all, stay-at-home orders were not intended to keep people locked up inside; since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have been recommending that people continue to get outdoor exercise while maintaining social distance (NPR, 4/1/20).
Perhaps more importantly, the economic hardship caused by lockdowns does not happen in an apolitical bubble; as public health experts Julia Marcus and Gregg Gonsalves pointed out in the Atlantic (6/11/20), they and many other such experts have long been pushing for massive economic assistance to help forestall such fallout, as has been done quite successfully in many other countries. In other words, lockdowns do not have to lead to the kind of suffering and deprivation being experienced right now in this country, and no public health expert is advocating that.
There’s now been more than enough time to judge the impact of the protests on infections—and, despite nefarious police tactics that raised risks of transmission (like kettling, using tear gas, and not letting arrested protesters wear masks while they were held for long periods in police custody), there is no evidence that the protests spurred outbreaks; no increases in infection rates in places that saw some of the biggest protests, like Minneapolis, New York City and Washington, DC, and in fact an increase in social distancing in places where protests took place, which presumably helped drive down transmission (NEBR, 6/20). On the other hand, in several US states that have relaxed their “draconian” lockdowns in a manner at odds with public health experts’ recommendations, infections are beginning to escalate exponentially.
So, in fact, neither of Greenwald’s two things are true: Public health experts did not recklessly abet a spike in protest-related infections, nor have their recommendations for lockdowns in the face of increasing transmission been proven unfounded.
Which brings us back to the Times article, which came a full month after the letter was first published, and well after the outcome was clear. Perhaps to justify the existence of his article, Powell left open a wide berth for alternate interpretations of the data: “There is as of yet no firm evidence that protests against police violence led to noticeable spikes in infection rates.” But of course, it’s not just no “firm” evidence—Powell offered no evidence, period. So why run this story, framed in this way, now? With nothing new to contribute, the article serves only to further erode trust in the very people we have to rely on to get us out of the disaster we’re currently in.