You Can Stay Safe From Covid-19 and Peacefully Protest Racism

We do not need to ask people to choose between their right to demand for justice and their health

Andy Slavitt
Medium Coronavirus Blog


Photo by Erik Saevi

Peaceful protests, demonstrations, making your voice heard, marching — all of that sounds challenging in the face of Coronavirus, and it is a health risk. But so is racism. We have the duty to make peaceful protests safe.

Compared to other things — a large indoor church gathering, a crowded casino, a bar, or say a major political convention — the risk of being outdoors in a crowd is lower risk, particularly with some common sense precautions. Marching and carrying a sign is reasonably safe. Aggressive police responses and the tactic of jamming a crowd together, trapping them in from all sides, is not safe. Tear gassing crowds which causes sneezing and coughing, also not safe.

The city and law enforcement, in fact, has more to do with the safety of protesters than anything else. Giving the protesters ample room, allowing them to assemble peacefully. Public health departments should take the lead in ensuring safe conditions and a harm reduction approach. Public health commissioners should issue guidance that all officers on site set the tone — not only by taking a knee with protesters — but by wearing a face mask, socially distancing, and allowing the crowd to socially distance.

Another thing that is not safe; jails. Non-violent protesters should be going nowhere near a jail. Covid or not.

Protesters can also cut down on the risks with common sense precautions.

  • Masks, bilaterally. Show up wearing them, bring extra and give them to people without. Change them after a few hours. Still keeping socially distant.
  • Drive and gather with people you shelter with.
  • Hand sanitizer, which wasn’t readily available even weeks ago, is now. Use it frequently. And liberally, not conservatively.
  • If you are protesting and live with people at higher risk — parents, grandparents, people with diabetes or high blood pressure — isolate from them until you’ve had a negative test (or two).
  • If you have a positive test result, a fever, or a scratchy throat, protest from home. Work on the #8cantwait campaign to end violence by the police.

The city and state must provide free and universal testing for all protesters, demonstrators, journalists and peace officers.

Black communities are disproportionately harmed by Covid-19 and are disproportionately harmed by police violence. Our policies are responsible for both. Let’s change both. Listen to DeRay Mckesson talk about all the numbers behind the epidemic of police violence here.

We must all be aware that the death rate from Covid-19 among African Americans is higher than that of white Americans. These numbers are startling. African-American deaths are 2x more than the share of the population. In four states, more than 3x.

But this is nothing new. If you’re black, it begins at birth:

  • Infants are 2x more likely to before their first birthday
  • Black babies are 50% more likely to be born premature
  • Black moms are 3–4x more likely to die in childbirth
  • Many early childhood illnesses are untreated

Disparities pervade virtually every aspect of health, but here are just a few. Black people are:

  • 77% more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes
  • 50% more likely to have high blood pressure
  • 2x more likely to die of heart disease

The same data can be found on heart disease, asthma, cancer and most any illness you can think of. Because poor access to care and system bias pertain to any illness, as do environmental factors like food accessibility, housing, and more. Life expectancy for African Americans is 3.5 years less than for whites. When zip code and poverty are factored in the difference can be more than a decade.

Going to a protest doesn’t mean people are throwing caution to the wind and don’t care if they get sick. We have an obligation to protect free speech, free assembly, a free press, and making it as safe as possible. Times that test us aren’t the times to fold our ideals. Or to tell us we have to choose. We owe the people fighting for our ideals who are pushing us to be a better country the best and safest platform to do it from.

The America I love stayed home to protect their neighbors’ health and marched in the street to get them justice. Protests will go until things finally change. Neither the virus nor the president will stop it.

Here is a list of Black leaders and voices in health care you can follow on Twitter.