Posted 109 days ago
Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance
For months, health experts told Americans to stay home. Now, many are encouraging the public to join mass protests.
Dan Diamond investigates health care politics and policy for POLITICO. He also co-authors the POLITICO Pulse newsletter and hosts the Pulse Check podcast.
For months, public health experts have urged Americans to take every precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19—stay at home, steer clear of friends and extended family, and absolutely avoid large gatherings.
Now some of those experts are broadcasting a new message: It’s time to get out of the house and join the mass protests against racism.
“We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, tweeted on Tuesday. “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
“The injustice that’s evident to everyone right now needs to be addressed,” Abraar Karan, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician who’s exhorted coronavirus experts to amplify the protests' anti-racist message, told me. "While I have voiced concerns that protests risk creating more outbreaks, the status quo wasn’t going to stop #covid19 either," he wrote on Twitter this week.
It’s a message echoed by media outlets and some of the most prominent public health experts in America, like former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who loudly warned against efforts to rush reopening but is now supportive of mass protests. Their claim: If we don’t address racial inequality, it’ll be that much harder to fight Covid-19. There’s also evidence that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors, especially if people wear masks.
The experts maintain that their messages are consistent—that they were always flexible on Americans going outside, that they want protesters to take precautions and that they're prioritizing public health by demanding an urgent fix to systemic racism.
But their messages are also confounding to many who spent the spring strictly isolated on the advice of health officials, only to hear that the need might not be so absolute after all. It’s particularly nettlesome to conservative skeptics of the all-or-nothing approach to lockdown, who point out that many of those same public health experts—a group that tends to skew liberal—widely criticized activists who held largely outdoor protests against lockdowns in April and May, accusing demonstrators of posing a public health danger. Conservatives, who felt their own concerns about long-term economic damage or even mental health costs of lockdown were brushed aside just days or weeks ago, are increasingly asking whether these public health experts are letting their politics sway their health care recommendations.
“Their rules appear ideologically driven as people can only gather for purposes deemed important by the elite central planners,” Brian Blase, who worked on health policy for the Trump administration, told me, an echo of complaints raised by prominent conservative commentators like J. D. Vance and Tim Carney.
Conservatives also have seized on a Twitter thread by Drew Holden, a commentary writer and former GOP Hill staffer, comparing how politicians and pundits criticized earlier protests but have been silent on the new ones or even championed them.
“I think what’s lost on people is that there have been real sacrifices made during lockdown,” Holden told me. “People who couldn’t bury loved ones. Small businesses destroyed. How can a health expert look those people in the eye and say it was worth it now?”
Some members of the medical community acknowledged they’re grappling with the U-turn in public health advice, too. “It makes it clear that all along there were trade-offs between details of lockdowns and social distancing and other factors that the experts previously discounted and have now decided to reconsider and rebalance,” said Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School. Flier pointed out that the protesters were also engaging in behaviors, like loud singing in close proximity, which CDC has repeatedly suggested could be linked to spreading the virus.
“At least for me, the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans,” he told me.
The shift in experts’ tone is setting up a confrontation amid the backdrop of a still-raging pandemic. Tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases continue to be diagnosed every day—and public health experts acknowledge that more will likely come from the mass gatherings, sparked by the protests over George Floyd’s death while in custody of the Minneapolis police last week.
“It is a challenge,” Howard Koh, who served as assistant secretary for health during the Obama administration, told me. Koh said he supports the protests but acknowledges that Covid-19 can be rapidly, silently spread. “We know that a low-risk area today can become a high-risk area tomorrow,” he said.
Yet many say the protests are worth the risk of a possible Covid-19 surge, including hundreds of public health workers who signed an open letter this week that sought to distinguish the new anti-racist protests “from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders.”
Those protests against stay-at-home orders “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives,” according to the letter’s nearly 1,300 signatories. “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”
“Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” the letter signers add.... (Read more)