Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that an open letter excusing social justice protests during the pandemic garnered 1,288 signatories, not over 1,300. The signatories also included a number of medical students, activists, and others, not just epidemiologists and other health professionals.
Health experts are struggling to justify their widespread endorsement of social justice protests after repeatedly warning people against holding demonstrations against coronavirus lockdown orders.
Shortly after states began locking down in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus, business owners as well as furloughed and unemployed workers began marching in cities from New York to Los Angeles against the heavy-handed restrictions. Health officials and government officials condemned the anti-lockdown protests, and warned that the demonstrations could necessitate that the lockdown orders stay in place longer.
“I certainly condemned the anti-lockdown protests at the time, and I’m not condemning the protests now, and I struggle with that,” University of Texas epidemiologist Catherine Troisi told The New York Times. “I have a hard time articulating why that is OK.”
After the death of George Floyd on May 25, the anti-lockdown protesters were largely forgotten as thousands of social justice activists packed streets in cities across the United States to protest police behavior and make allegations of systemic racism. Many of the lawmakers and experts who criticized anti-lockdown protests flouted social distancing rules to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Nearly 1,300 epidemiologists, health experts, and others signed an open letter endorsing the protests, stating that “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who chided anti-lockdown protesters for weeks, flouted her own social distancing rules to join a BLM protest on June 4. Her spokeswoman later denied that she violated the rules, even as photos of the event show the governor kneeling with and touching activists.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the BLM protesters were fighting an “extraordinary crisis” that outweighed the threat of the coronavirus and is more important than reopening struggling businesses or allowing devout individuals to return to houses of worship.
“When you see a nation, an entire nation, simultaneously grappling with an extraordinary crisis seeded in 400 years of American racism,” de Blasio said June 2. “I’m sorry, that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”
Health experts interviewed by the NYT admitted that condemning one protest and supporting another based on the grievance of the protesters at least appears hypocritical, if not evidence of a blatant double-standard.
“Instinctively, many of us in public health feel a strong desire to act against accumulated generations of racial injustice,” Brown University Epidemiology Professor Mark Lurie said. “But we have to be honest: A few weeks before, we were criticizing protesters for arguing to open up the economy and saying that was dangerous behavior … I am still grappling with that.”
Nicholas A. Christakis, professor of social and natural science at Yale, warned against officials and health experts making moral distinctions between the anti-lockdown and BLM protests. He pointed to other activities that health experts forbid during the pandemic, such as visiting loved ones in the hospital, which caused significant emotional stress.
“We allowed thousands of people to die alone,” Christakis said. “We buried people by Zoom. Now all of a sudden we are saying, never mind?”