I didn’t believe it possible: One group of voices in the United States has just proven itself more flagrantly hypocritical and, frankly, deranged than woke religious leaders about the violence that has too often resulted from legitimate and needed protests about George Floyd’s killing and related racial injustice and police brutality issues. That group consists of the supposed public health experts who signed a letter claiming that the urgency of protesting outweighs the importance of maintaining the social distancing and other personal behavior curbs that they’d previous declared vital to fight the CCP Virus pandemic.
The letter, which was released last week, has rightly drawn widespread outrage, ridicule, and often both. (See, e.g., here.) For its message is clearly politically based rather than scientifically based. Unless you can think of another explanation for suddenly shifting from demanding sweeping curbs on personal and business behavior that have wreaked historic economic damage for the sake of preventing millions of virus-induced deaths, to claiming that the need to demonstrate is paramount even if the inevitable public crowding resulting from mass gatherings increases superspread risks?
And that description is no exaggeration. Here’s the core of the signatories’ message:
“To the extent possible, we support the application of these public health best practices during demonstrations that call attention to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy. However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission. We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States. We can show that support by facilitating safest protesting practices without detracting from demonstrators’ ability to gather and demand change. This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders.”
Two particular points stand out here:
First, the public health specialists are backing only “the application of…pubic health best practices” to “the extent possible.” In other words, if it’s not possible…lah de dah. Indeed, the signatories explicitly consign six-foot social distancing itself to the intrinsically lower priority “where possible” category. And the most astonishing (or most predictable?) example of politicizing public health? “Prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest.”
Second, even all of these logical and ethical backflips get the heave-ho when it comes to “white protesters resisting stay-home orders.” Their demonstrations should remain entirely verboten. The reason? The “public health response to these demonstrations” must be “clear and consistent in prioritizing” their unacceptability because they’re intrisincially racist. Even granted the assumption that about racism and anti-curbs protests, you couldn’t provide a clearer definition of a double standard.
Something else bizarre about the letter: It’s anything but clear that all the signatories are even public health experts. Right off the bat, we’re told that some of the signers are “community stakeholders.” Judging from the actual list, descriptions like “activist” and “indigenous health advocate” and even “African American” and “human” justified inclusion. Many more signatories didn’t bother to present any descriptions or qualifications whatever. Still others, like “Andrew H” and “Christine D” and “Diana A” wouldn’t state their full names. And two were permitted to sign (is that even the right verb?) by identifying themselves as “Anonymous JD” and simply “anonymous.”
But what strikes me as most striking about this manifesto is the argument that protesting despite the public health risks is praiseworthy because it’s part of an effort to end racial inequities in U.S. health care delivery that have taken countless African American lives. There’s no doubt that the black community has suffered from many dangerous health challenges that haven’t been nearly so serious for other Americans. (Here’s one representative study.) Nonetheless, the logic of this position is remarkably similar to that of claims (made by me and many others) that the lockdowns themselves have created serious public health threats, and that these need to be weighed against the sickness and deaths caused by the virus.
Which brings us back to the public health signatories’ unequivocal condemnation of those who have protested these lockdowns. If all of most or a significant percentage of these protesters really are white supremacists, they have a point. If not, it’s time they start looking into some mirrors.