Don’t Shame Protesters and Park-Goers Over Covid-19 Spreading—Shame Corporations and the State

While demonstrators have been blamed for potentially endangering the public, the real danger lies elsewhere.

Natalie Shure June 5, 2020

Some of the highest risks for Covid-19 spread have been imposed by police. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Amid nation­wide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by a police offi­cer in Min­neapo­lis, pub­lic health ana­lysts — and the broad­er pub­lic — have debat­ed the large pub­lic gath­er­ings’ impli­ca­tions for the spread of Covid-19. Accord­ing to most accounts, a high pro­por­tion of pro­test­ers have worn masks, and are gath­er­ing out­side where trans­mis­sion is sig­nif­i­cant­ly less like­ly than indoors. Yet they have also gath­ered in far larg­er groups than is cur­rent­ly rec­om­mend­ed, and are fre­quent­ly spaced less than six feet apart. Some onlook­ers are irked by the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance of mak­ing excep­tions for protests giv­en the urgency of social dis­tanc­ing. Oth­ers have coun­tered that fight­ing sys­temic racism is a pow­er­ful pub­lic health mea­sure in itself. 

What this debate illustrates is that we should have been thinking differently about risk all along.

Racial and class dis­par­i­ties in Covid-19 deaths have clar­i­fied the shock­ing degree to which anti-Black­ness shapes health out­comes, an issue deeply inter­twined with how bru­tal­ly Black com­mu­ni­ties are policed. Nonethe­less, such argu­ments in favor of large protests do sit some­what uncom­fort­ably beside abso­lutist lock­down mea­sures that have pre­vailed in many cities and states, some of which have gone so far as to shut­ter pub­lic parks while polic­ing social dis­tanc­ing vio­la­tions in the name of pub­lic health.

But what this debate illus­trates is that we should have been think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about risk all along. Coro­n­avirus infec­tion con­trol has tak­en many forms, includ­ing mea­sures such as school and busi­ness clo­sures as well as the imple­men­ta­tion of new social dis­tanc­ing pro­to­cols for ser­vices that remain open. It’s also entailed strin­gent rules gov­ern­ing indi­vid­ual behav­ior, rein­forced by enforce­ment mech­a­nisms rang­ing from polic­ing to vit­ri­olic sham­ing on social media. But there are two fun­da­men­tal prob­lems with this approach: it frames viral trans­mis­sion as the result of self­ish choic­es, and mis­un­der­stands who gets sick to begin with. Covid-19 is large­ly spread between peo­ple who had lit­tle chance to avoid expo­sure, who were pit­ted togeth­er in their own homes, by the state, or by their bosses.

While all of us should prac­tice sen­si­ble, sol­i­daris­tic risk reduc­tion, more pow­er­ful actors — from police forces to politi­cians and cor­po­ra­tions — bear struc­tur­al respon­si­bil­i­ty for the extent of the outbreak.

The protests may well turn out to illus­trate this very dynam­ic. While pro­test­ers attend­ing the out­door demon­stra­tions have large­ly cho­sen to reduce the risk of trans­mis­sion by wear­ing masks, dis­trib­ut­ing hand san­i­tiz­er and spread­ing out when pos­si­ble, some of the high­est risks were imposed by police: wide­spread reports depict offi­cers cor­ralling atten­dees in small­er areas and block­ing acces­si­ble exits, pack­ing pro­test­ers tight­ly togeth­er. Police offi­cers them­selves have fre­quent­ly been observed with­out masks, and are them­selves not­ed vec­tors for the coro­n­avirus: at the height of the pan­dem­ic, near­ly 20% of the New York Police Depart­ment was out sick, and police appear to have dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly high infec­tion rates.

The use of tear gas by police caus­es cough­ing and eye-rub­bing, both of which can facil­i­tate the spread of the virus. Over 11,000 arrests nation­wide have forced pro­test­ers into police cus­tody where the risk of trans­mis­sion is out­landish­ly high: peo­ple in deten­tion are 2.5 times more like­ly to con­tract the virus, and 8 of the country’s 10 largest out­breaks have occurred in cor­rec­tion­al facil­i­ties. One study found that peo­ple fil­ter­ing in and out of Cook Coun­ty Jail account­ed for over 15% of all cas­es in the state of Illinois.

Out­side of the protests, it’s even more obvi­ous how lit­tle trans­mis­sion has to do with indi­vid­ual behav­ior — the major­i­ty of Covid-19 trans­mis­sions occur in sit­u­a­tions peo­ple didn’t choose to be in. Many infec­tions are dri­ven sim­ply by where a patient lives: the most com­mon site of trans­mis­sion is with­in people’s homes, which is one of many rea­sons case num­bers are high­er in poor­er, dense­ly-packed house­holds — often in neigh­bor­hoods that have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly starved of resources for decades. Rates are also incred­i­bly high among home­less pop­u­la­tions and with­in nurs­ing homes. Essen­tial work­places with sub­stan­dard pro­tec­tions and inad­e­quate sick leave poli­cies also put work­ers at risk, with major out­breaks emerg­ing among work­ers in fields like meat­pack­ing, san­i­ta­tion and pub­lic tran­sit. In some cas­es, employ­ers are alleged to have con­tributed toward infec­tion rates: sev­er­al ware­house work­ers have sued Ama­zon over neg­li­gent safe­ty mea­sures per­tain­ing to the virus.

In short, the vast major­i­ty of Covid-19 trans­mis­sions hap­pen between peo­ple who were some­how com­pelled to spend long stretch­es of time with infect­ed peo­ple: their fam­i­ly mem­bers or fel­low inhab­i­tants of nurs­ing homes, home­less encamp­ments or shel­ters; their fel­low inmates; or oth­er work­ers on the job. In many such cas­es, the con­di­tions for trans­mis­sion were laid by polit­i­cal deci­sions: the Unit­ed States boasts more aggres­sive and expan­sive incar­cer­a­tion than any coun­try on Earth, our lack of com­pre­hen­sive and afford­able hous­ing poli­cies have led to greater home­less­ness than peer coun­tries, and our lack of union pow­er has left work­ers less equipped to fight for safe­ty pro­tec­tions and sick leave.

As such, wide­spread sham­ing on social media of indi­vid­ual behav­iors like not wear­ing masks while run­ning out­doors, or walk­ing on a beach, have large­ly overem­pha­sized the risk of trans­mis­sion between pass­ing strangers. While no activ­i­ty is risk-free, indi­vid­u­als are per­fect­ly capa­ble of judg­ing risk and mod­u­lat­ing behav­ior accord­ing­ly, par­tic­u­lar­ly if they have sen­si­ble guid­ance. But as epi­demi­o­log­i­cal evi­dence about rel­a­tive risks has mount­ed, pub­lic health mes­sag­ing has been slow to evolve. Cer­tain types of trans­mis­sion appear to be quite rare: In one study of more than 7,300 cas­es in Chi­na, just one was con­nect­ed to out­door trans­mis­sion. Touch­ing infect­ed sur­faces like­wise seems less dan­ger­ous than once feared.

These devel­op­ments call for a reori­en­ta­tion of how we think about how risk is imposed on oth­ers, and how we nav­i­gate it for our­selves. As Har­vard epi­demi­ol­o­gist Julia Mar­cus told me, Peo­ple are mak­ing deci­sions every day about risk. And right now they’re doing it with­out a com­plete pic­ture of the rel­a­tive risks of dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties that they may be engag­ing in. And now that we’ve real­ized this is going to go on for a real­ly long time, we have to accept that most peo­ple can’t sus­tain zero social con­tact.” If social dis­tanc­ing guide­lines have thus far been anal­o­gous to absti­nence-only edu­ca­tion, Mar­cus argued, it’s time to move toward harm-reduc­tion and teach peo­ple to make choic­es safely.

As the wave of protests shows, many Amer­i­cans have deter­mined that the mod­er­ate infec­tion risk is exceed­ed by the risks imposed by the over-polic­ing, sys­temic racism and pover­ty that stand at the cen­ter of the upris­ings. The epi­demi­o­log­i­cal evi­dence appears to be on their side.

Natal­ie Shure is a Los Ange­les-based writer and researcher whose work focus­es on his­to­ry, health, and politics.
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