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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Rallies, Protests Defy Health

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Commemoration on June 19 in New York (By Getty Images)


The Donald Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma attracted thousands of supporters to an indoor stadium, where they screamed and shouted in concert with the Republican Party’s presumptive candidate for the United States presidential election in November.

Trump plans to campaign on Tuesday in Phoenix, Arizona, where the number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases has doubled in the past two weeks, according to National Public Radio on June 14.

Meanwhile, for the third week, demonstrators nationwide chanted and sang for racial justice in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Many celebrated Juneteenth, which marked the belated announcement in 1885 to Texas slaves that they were free. Others commemorated the Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa in 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses. The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 blocks of the wealthiest black community in the United States at that time.

These weekend events defied protective health measures in the global COVID-19 pandemic. For one thing, social distancing would have been difficult at the best of times. Organizers did hand out face masks and hand gel. Some participants wore masks, and some did not do so.

Driving protests have been the safest kind of demonstration. Cars are decorated with signs, and motorists honk their horns to show solidarity. High-risk older demonstrators seem to favor this manner of participation, which has taken place from coast to coast, from Long Island, New York to Palm Springs, California.

The marchers have said that the risk of contracting the new coronavirus underscores the urgency of their message. One young black protestor in Arizona was interviewed by CNN. She had been infected with the virus along with a friend. She said that it was worth it.

COVID-19 is not partisan. Yet, the Republican rally supporters and the racial justice demonstrators deal with risk in different ways.

The Trump campaign required people to sign a waiver and “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19” before attending the Tulsa rally at the BOK Center.

With regard to the racial justice marchers, 1,288 public health professionals signed a letter earlier this month, before the authors closed it to signatures, urging that the protests not be shut down under the guise of novel coronavirus concerns.

“White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” said the letter. Many of the authors are part of the University of Washington’s Division of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington, told CNN:

“While everyone is concerned about the risk of COVID, there are risks with just being black in this country that almost outweigh that sometimes. And the sad part is the group that is protesting for their rights are the same people who are already disproportionately affected by the disease.”

For demonstrators, the health officials recommended, among many other things, face masks, social distancing and staying at home if feeling sick. For law enforcement officers, the officials opposed the use of tear gas, arrests and containment in close quarters, and succumbing to the message that masks are used for concealment, not protection. For local health authorities, the officials urged preparation for an increase in the number of infections in the days following protests with increased access to testing and care.

For black Americans, this is truly a “life or death matter”, and protestors aren’t taking actions lightly, Hussein said.

“It’s something they’re doing because if they don’t fight for this now, they may never be able to fight for it in the future,” Hussein said. “While COVID is now, and we don’t know how long it’s going to last, white supremacy and oppression have been a long way longer. And we can guarantee that they are going to continue if people don’t do anything about it now.”

The letter began:

“On April 30, heavily armed and predominantly white protestors entered the State Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan, protesting stay-home orders and calls for widespread masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 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.

“As of May 30, we are witnessing continuing demonstrations in response to ongoing, pervasive, and lethal institutional racism set off by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among many other Black lives taken by police. A public health response to these demonstrations is also warranted, but this message must be wholly different from the response to white protestors resisting stay-home orders.

“Infectious disease and public healthy 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.”

In the United States, 119,959 people have died of COVID-19 in four months, according to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center on June 21. There has been conflict over disease precautions and re-opening the states to business. Besides Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Nevada have seen record increases in cases and hospitalizations, reported Reuters on June 16.

The United States has more COVID-19 deaths than any other country. Brazil holds second place with 50,591 deaths. The United Kingdom follows with 42,717 fatalities. Portugal ranks 28th with 1,530.

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