America has all but given up on fighting COVID-19, and the consequences are going to be catastrophic, as Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer at The Altantic warn.
After months of deserted public spaces and empty roads, Americans have returned to the streets. But they have come not for a joyous reopening to celebrate the country’s victory over the coronavirus. Instead, tens of thousands of people have ventured out to protest the killing of George Floyd by police.
Demonstrators have closely gathered all over the country, and in blocks-long crowds in large cities, singing and chanting and demanding justice. Police officers have dealt with them roughly, crowding protesters together, blasting them with lung and eye irritants, and cramming them into paddy wagons and jails.
There’s no point in denying the obvious: Standing in a crowd for long periods raises the risk of increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This particular form of mass, in-person protest—and the corresponding police response—is a “perfect set-up” for transmission of the virus, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a radio interview on Friday. Some police-brutality activists (such as Black Lives Matter Seattle) have issued statements about the risk involved in the protests. Others have organized less risky forms of protests, such as Oakland’s Anti Police-Terror Project’s massive “caravan for justice.”
The risk of transmission is complicated by, and intertwined with, the urgent moral stakes: Systemic racism suffuses the United States. The mortality gap between black and white people persists. People born in zip codes mere miles from one another might have life-expectancy gaps of 10 or even 20 years. Two racial inequities meet in this week’s protests: one, a pandemic in which black people are dying at nearly twice their proportion of the population, according to racial data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic; and two, antiblack police brutality, with its long American history and intensifying militarization. Floyd, 46, survived COVID-19 in April, but was killed under the knee of a police officer in May.
Americans may wish the virus to be gone, but it is not. While the outbreak has eased in the Northeast, driving down the overall national numbers, cases have only plateaued in the rest of the country, and they appear to be on the rise in recent days in COVID Tracking Project data. Twenty-two states reported 400 or more new cases Friday, and 14 other states and Puerto Rico reported cases in the triple digits. Several states—including Arizona, North Carolina, and California—are now seeing their highest numbers of known cases.
These numbers all reflect infections that likely began before this week of protest. An even larger spike now seems likely. Put another way: If the country doesn’t see a substantial increase in new COVID-19 cases after this week, it should prompt a rethinking of what epidemiologists believe about how the virus spreads.
But as the pandemic persists, more and more states are pulling back on the measures they’d instituted to slow the virus. The Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force is winding down its activities. Its testing czar is returning to his day job at the Department of Health and Human Services. As the long, hot summer of 2020 begins, the facts suggest that the U.S. is not going to beat the coronavirus. Collectively, we slowly seem to be giving up. It is a bitter and unmistakably American cruelty that the people who might suffer most are also fighting for justice in a way that almost certainly increases their risk of being infected.
The protests have led to unusually agonized public-health communication. They have not been met with the stern admonition to stay home that has greeted earlier mass gatherings. Given the long-standing health inequities that black Americans have experienced, hundreds of public-health professionals signed a letter this week declining to oppose 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 wrote. Yet the protests are indisputably risky, and officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned that the gatherings might “seed” new outbreaks.
Protesters themselves are not necessarily ignoring the pandemic. In videos of marches taken this week, many if not most of the demonstrators appeared to be wearing masks. Photos and videos of protests show both large, tightly packed crowds and some demonstrators attempting to adhere to some form of social distancing. Protesters carrying hand sanitizer and water pass through the crowd in many cities.
But the evidence does not reveal universal compliance with public-health guidelines. Protesters lay close together on the ground in many cities for nearly nine-minute-long “die-ins,” evoking the length of time that Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck. Many protests have involved some form of shouting, chanting, or singing, which research suggests can be especially effective modes of transmission for the virus. Earlier this week, near the White House, a mostly masked crowd loudly sang “Lean on Me.”
Protesters and public-health officials alike may be taking into account what The New York Times called “a growing consensus” that being outdoors mitigates some risk of transmission. The virus appears to perish quickly in a sunny, humid environment, even at room temperature, according to research conducted in April by the Department of Homeland Security. (Viral particles may survive for hours longer in drier conditions, and epidemiologists do not believe that these climatic effects alone will dampen the outbreak.) The virus also seems to be more difficult to transmit outside, especially during the day, though scientists still do not know enough about the virus to say confidently that large outdoor gatherings are completely safe. The number of protests over the past week means that researchers will soon have a much better understanding of the risks of outdoor transmission.
So we'll see. It's possible that things won't be as bad as previously thought. But it's also possible that the country will see a massive spike in new COVID-19 cases that will quickly overwhelm places without the resources of a New York City or Los Angeles.
Then things get really awful.