The George Floyd murder was an absolute atrocity. Nobody denies that. And, several things are entirely reasonable to believe in – for example, that the three other officers involved with George Floyd’s murder should be charged, or that police need stricter oversight, or that there are systemic problems within the justice system. These issues have been debated time and time again, and I am not going to discuss them more here. What I am going to discuss is the global pandemic occurring at the moment – one which has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans. These protests must be discussed in the context of COVID-19.
COVID-19 spreads via aerosolized droplets – like the ones produced when screaming a protest chant – and easily spreads when people are packed together like they were in many protests. We have seen “superspreader” events occur in places such as a fish-packing facility in Ghana, a church in South Korea, or a choir practice in Washington state. However, the spread of COVID-19 is mitigated by simply being outside – a study of 318 clusters in China revealed that only a single transmission occurred outdoors, between two people who were talking. It is important to note that there is a significant confounding factor in that not many people were likely outdoors in the first place – the study analyzed clusters between Jan 4 and Feb 11, when the maximum temperature in Wuhan is below 50F. There were no large, outdoor gatherings in Wuhan, and thus nothing to truly compare to the George Floyd protests from the Chinese data.
During the Spanish Flu epidemic, parades held to raise morale during WW1 resulted in immediate spikes in cases and deaths – although this is not a fair comparison. Influenza and COVID-19 are completely different diseases, and Spanish Flu was often underestimated or even ignored in the media to keep morale high for the war – people had low awareness of the disease. Perhaps our best “well-known” reference is the Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana. A CDC report suggests that Mardi Gras celebrations resulted in an increased intensity of COVID cases in Louisiana, even though Mardi Gras is an outdoor celebration. In terms of cases per capita, Louisiana is fairly high – and while some of this can be attributed to increased testing, Louisiana’s test positivity ratio is higher than that of nearby Texas, Mississippi, or Alabama (although Mississippi and Alabama lack a city as large as New Orleans). Additionally, cell-phone data suggests the anti-lockdown protests of late April/early May contributed to the spread of COVID-19. These protests were far smaller than what we see today. Furthermore, at both Mardi Gras and the anti-lockdown protests, very few people wore a mask. While the effectiveness of mask-wearing is debated, in general, the scientific evidence suggests that mask-wearing is somewhat effective but less effective/important than physical distancing.
At the BLM protests, most attendees wore masks. However, most protestors are also completely disregarding any notion of social distancing. This applies to the police forces as well, who often appear in tight formations, packed together in opposition to a crowd of protestors. Police’s liberal usage of tear gas is a major problem – tear gas induces coughing, sneezing, crying, and to flush out tear gas from the eyes, protesters often have to touch each other’s faces. Rioting and looting – already bad enough by their own merit – also pose a significant health risk, as dozens of people jam into tight spaces to pillage and plunder goods. Given that health experts rated attending a baseball game as an incredibly high-risk activity, despite the outdoor nature of such an event, it seems that from a public health perspective, the George Floyd protests are a total and complete nightmare. With people potentially traveling hundreds of miles to attend protests, these events could lead to uncontained, national outbreaks of COVID-19. Contact tracing is nearly impossible due to the size and anonymity of the crowd.
Are these protests worth it? By any objective basis, they are not. Roughly 1,000 Americans are shot and killed by the police each year – ⅔ of whom are Hispanic or Black. Some of these shootings are likely justified, but for the sake of argument, let’s say that none of them are, as it is hard in many cases to objectively determine whether or not a shooting is justified. These wildly pessimistic assumptions leave us with 660 unjust killings of black people every year. In contrast, COVID-19 has killed 21,000 African Americans in just three months. Extrapolating the COVID data to an annual total (not a super realistic extrapolation, but I’m making it for the sake of comparison), COVID-19 is anywhere from 100-1,000x more likely to kill African Americans than unjust police shootings, depending on where one draws the line of “just vs unjust”. By any objective measure, our number one priority should be defeating COVID-19. The protests are certainly not helping COVID-19, and they are likely to significantly hurt efforts – they need to somehow be stopped, or conducted in a safe manner.
So what are the various levels of government – state and federal – to do? For starters, the Minneapolis Police department would do the nation a service by arresting the 3 other officers – if all else, it diminishes protests and could slightly reduce the risk of spread. Additionally, socially distanced protests have occurred in Israel – this represents an ideal compromise in some cities. However, not every city has a large, open square to stage such a protest. Protesting in cars is viable in some smaller cities with smaller protests – unfortunately, cars take up a ludicrous amount of space, so large protests in cars are physically impossible.
Frankly, both state governments and the federal government need to dramatically change their messaging. “Law and order” messaging will not cause people to go home; and unleashing violence on protestors will just result in more protests. Instead, leaders need to emphasize in the strongest possible manner that these protests, from a public health standpoint, are an awful idea, and could inadvertently kill thousands. Leaders must require protestors to socially distance at all times – and if a large enough group is not socially distanced while protesting, police should have the authority to break up the group and make arrests if needed.
Unprecedented times require unprecedented measures. We gladly give up our 4th amendment rights every time we pass through an airport. We do not allow people to yell “fire” in a crowded theatre. In the same way, we can’t allow ultra-crowded protests during a pandemic. There are certainly issues with police brutality in America – but they are not on the same scale as the challenge posed by COVID-19.