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Protest during a pandemic? Leaders say it can be good for public health in the long term

Max Schulte
Recent rallies in Rochester to protest police brutality could bring increased transmission of the novel coronavirus, but some public health leaders say calling attention to racial inequalities has a greater health benefit than staying silent through the pandemic.

As demonstrators gathered in downtown Rochester last week in protests against police brutality spurred by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Dr. Linda Clark started to get nervous.

Clark, the president of the Black Physician’s Network of Greater Rochester, said she was concerned that the protests would bring members of Monroe County’s black community -- already at high risk of dying from COVID-19 -- into closer contact with more people, spreading the disease even further.

Then, she thought of the long-term implications of the demonstrations.

Clark said racism is the root cause of both high rates of police violence toward people of color and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Rochester’s black community. Without the protests, she said, racism will persist.

“It begins to look like a risk that’s worth taking for the long haul when you think about the lives of your grandchildren when this pandemic is over,” Clark said.

Public health authorities and nurses associations around the country have pointed to racial bias as the basis for inequalities in policing, housing, education and economic opportunity. Those inequalities result in lower life expectancies and worse health outcomes for black Americans compared to white Americans, even during the best of times.

As a result of pre-existing inequalities, caused in part by policing practices, the novel coronavirus has hit people of color especially hard, wrote New York State Nurses Association Executive Director Pat Kane.

“The hardships caused by the virus have been particularly severe and enduring,” Kane said of communities of color in the state.

These protests are so important because we will not have better health until we address racism.

Policing is not a separate issue from public health, said Wade Norwood, CEO of the Rochester nonprofit Common Ground Health. “We’re going to have to deal with those socioeconomic factors. Policing is a part of those socioeconomic factors. Crime is a part of those socioeconomic factors.”

Drawing attention to racism and racial inequalities during the pandemic could lead to long-term solutions, said Clark. 

“These protests are so important because we will not have better health until we address racism,” Clark said.

Still, as a public health professional, she is concerned about virus transmission at protests in Rochester.

“I’m split. I know I’m supposed to say, ‘Don’t do that.’ I know that is what I’m supposed to say. But I was so happy to see that masks are being given out. Sanitizer was there. We want to do everything we can to protect people,” said Clark.

How the protests will affect the spread of the virus remains unclear. Public officials have been discouraging public gatherings for months in an effort to reduce paths for transmission. Pepper spray and tear gas used to disperse protesters could increase their vulnerability to the virus.

But Norwood and Clark said the pandemic is a short-term issue compared to generations of institutionalized racism. If nothing changes, the virus will be brought under control, but racial disparities will not.

“The protests are important, because we have not gotten anywhere asking nicely,” Clark said. “It hasn’t worked. We’ve used logic. We’ve used humor. We’ve written letters. And it hasn’t gotten the attention of those able to make change.”

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