SEATTLE, WA — Dozens of public health and infectious disease experts in Washington have signed onto a petition supporting the ongoing protests against police violence triggered by the death of George Floyd, arguing that fighting racism helps fight the coronavirus, even if large gatherings risk spreading the virus further.
The reasoning is that racism itself is the source of a staggering number of public health disparities, including COVID-19, which has killed black and Latino people at far higher rates than whites in most states.
Nearly 1,300 people have signed the petition, which began at the University of Washington, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported on the effort. Signatories include at least 90 doctors, nurses and scientists at the UW, as well as multiple researchers at Fred Hutch and Seattle Children's hospital.
Last week, thousands of health workers took to the streets in Seattle, protesting police brutality against black Americans while describing racism as its own public health crisis.
The petition also includes a letter advocating for an “anti-racist public health response” to the demonstrations, as opposed to the aggressive police crackdown on protesters seen in many U.S. cities, including Seattle.
“Black people suffer from dramatic health disparities in life expectancy, maternal and infant mortality, chronic medal conditions” and other illnesses, the letter states, which cannot be explained by biological factors alone.
Instead, the group argues, the disparities “result from long-standing systems of oppression and bias which have subjected people of color to discrimination in the healthcare setting, decreased access to medical care and healthy food, unsafe working conditions, mass incarceration, exposure to pollution and noise, and the toxic effects of stress.”
Some public officials have voiced fears that the large demonstrations could cause a new wave of COVID-19 cases, and urged people to get tested after attending a protest.
In the petition, the experts say they largely agree with public health recommendations to stay home, maintain social distancing and wear face masks to avoid spreading the virus. However, they say, they can’t condemn the protests 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,” they write.
The letter concludes with a set of proposed guidelines to support public health while opposing racism, including that governments avoid disbanding protests due to coronavirus risks; that protesters not be arrested and held in confined spaces; that respiratory irritants like tear gas not be used; and that law enforcement wear masks themselves and maintain social distance from protesters.