A group of 1,000+ public health experts from prestigious medical schools like Harvard to powerful groups like the National Institutes of Health recently signed an open letter making the case that mass protests over the killing of George Floyd are “vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.” The letter illuminates an infuriating double standard, one that plunged the country into economic despair, mass unemployment, surging domestic violence, spiking suicides, and increased addictions.
At the end of their smug missive, these experts insist, “This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”
The argument is not only that white supremacy renders the protests a reasonable exception to their suggested shutdowns, but also that protests against those shutdowns are racist. Coming from the experts behind a shutdown that hit the black community especially hard, this is insulting and ludicrous. The New York Times covered that disparity just days ago, reporting, “Black Americans have been slightly more likely to lose jobs or income in the recession that took root as states locked down their economies,” further explaining why the community’s recovery will be especially difficult.
The experts’ argument is explicitly that mass gatherings in protest of racial inequality are worth the risk to public health because they help fight inequality, while mass gatherings and even less risky gatherings are not. The ban on those mass gatherings and much smaller gatherings—think hair salons and restaurants—has devastated the economy in our collective campaign to “stop the spread,” which those experts told us was necessary. They told us anything beyond a strict home quarantine, with exceptions made for essential workers, was intolerably dangerous. That’s before those activities were organized under the banner of a leftist cause.
By these experts’ logic, the spread is worth the risk when the public gathering is in service of a political movement with which they agree. This, of course, is ridiculous because the shutdowns themselves have particularly harmed the black community, and because the bans on much less risky gatherings have left people jobless, financially ruined, and confined to their homes, with drugs and alcohol and pornography to numb the pain.
If we needed to shut down the economy by keeping people away from each other to stop the spread, encouraging people to gather in close quarters in the service of a leftist cause does not mitigate that physical risk, and people are smart enough to know it.
Having covered the White House protests, I can say the demonstrations are packed as densely as Nats Park would be this time of year, which currently remains closed, leaving many working class Washingtonians without income.
We don’t yet conclusively know whether the shutdowns were “worth it” or not. But as soon as the protests proliferated last week, it was clear the public health concerns that have been raised in equally or less risky cases would be downplayed by ideologically supportive experts in media, government, and academia. This letter is an explicit and shameless expression of that shameful perspective.
The sentiment it articulates will leave a deep and lasting scar on the public’s already cratering trust in institutions. It should also prompt serious self-reflection from the expert class, but it won’t.