As It Happens

Over 1,000 health experts sign letter supporting anti-Black racism protests despite COVID-19 risks

Thousands of U.S. public health experts say it would be a mistake to shut down protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

'Racism and oppression is a public health issue,' says infectious diseases expert Dr. Abby Hussein

Protesters wears masks with the message 'I Still Can't Breathe' during a vigil at Foley Square in New York on May 29 against the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for several minutes. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
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More than 1,000 U.S. public health experts say it would be a mistake to shut down protests against police brutality and anti-Black racism following the murder of George Floyd in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

In an open letter published Friday, around 1,200 doctors, nurses and epidemiologists argued that — while risky — these protests are "vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States." 

"White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19. Black people are twice as likely to be killed by police compared to white people, but the effects of racism are far more pervasive," the letter said. 

Dr. Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington and one of the letter's first signatories, said the goal is to change the narrative that those protesting are "unsafe" and "putting people at risk" from the pandemic. 

"We think that racism and oppression is a public health issue. And so for us, it's essential that we show support and make that a priority. But we provide [protesters] with tips and ways to reduce harm and be safe while they're doing this," she told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Dr. Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington, was one of the first signatories of an open letter from U.S. public health experts supporting anti-Black racism protests despite the risk of COVID-19. (Submitted by Abby Hussein)

Black Americans disproportionately vulnerable

As a health-care professional, Hussein said she has taken care of those infected with COVID-19 and knows how vicious the virus can be, but "as a Black woman in America," she understands and sees the burden that racism is placing on people's lives too. 

"It's hard for us to predict what the impact of these protests will have on COVID cases. But the one thing we do know is that these murders are happening now. Police brutality is happening now. This is a current and clear threat," she said.

Black Americans, who make up just over 13 per cent of the U.S. population, are disproportionately vulnerable to both police violence and contracting the coronavirus than their white counterparts. 

A report published by the Foundation for AIDS Research in May found Black people made up half of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and nearly 60 per cent of deaths in the 22 localities studied. In March, gun violence researchers from the the New York Academy of Medicine found Black people were twice as likely to be among the roughly 1,000 people who are shot to death by police in the U.S. each year.

The people out protesting "already know that they're disproportionately affected, that they can get sick and that if they do, the outcomes may not be as good," Hussein said, adding that they have decided that the risks are "worth it because right now they can do nothing and still face a risk of death." 

"This is a life or death matter and that's how these people are seeing it."  

A police officer throws a tear gas canister towards protesters in Minneapolis on Friday. The open letter calls on police to stop using tear gas and pepper spray, which triggers coughing and could increase the infection rate of COVID-19. (Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Star Tribune via AP)

Hussein says she has advised those attending demonstrations to make sure they keep their faces covered with a mask, carry and regularly apply hand sanitizer, and avoid sharing food or signs with other people. 

"These protests are happening outside, which is also a recommendation. The movement and the air makes it harder for COVID to be transmitted," she said. 

But, she says it isn't the sole responsibility of protesters to try and minimize the spread of the coronavirus. She says law enforcement also has a duty to mitigate the use of pepper spray and tear gas, which "elicits people's coughing response," and to avoid "creating chaos in a crowd." 

'I am scared for my life'

Long-standing "systems of oppression" which exist in the U.S. have contributed to decreased access to health care, unsafe working conditions and an inability to access healthy food for many Black Americans, Hussein said. 

"All of these things factor into the social determinants of health … and have a giant impact on people's overall health and well-being. All of this stems from racism and white supremacy. Therefore, it's just as lethal as any disease that you're going to get."

A woman writes the words 'I can't breathe' on the face mask of a fellow demonstrator during a protest against racial inequality in New York City. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

One of these "systems of oppression" which have surfaced because of the pandemic was the double standard around Black people being perceived as threatening while wearing face masks, despite public health officials' recommendations to do so, she said.   

"That is something that they shouldn't have to think about and that is a reason for these protests to continue and to fight these things, to make it known that 'I want to follow these rules as much as I can, but I am scared for my life.'"


Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Sarah Jackson.

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