Protesters have flocked to the streets in over 700 American towns and cities over the last week to stand up to institutional racism after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans. Some have debated whether these protests will increase the spread of COVID-19, but healthcare workers across the country are coming together to voice their support for the Black Lives Matter movement and unjust persecution of people of color.
Over a thousand healthcare providers have signed a letter urging public officials not to shut down the protests over health concerns. The healthcare industry is not immune to racism, and these providers want to address systemic racism head on, just like the rest of the protesters.
Healthcare Workers Take Control of the Conversation
Some circles and commentators have criticized the protests as a threat to public safety as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, but some members of the healthcare community disagree. These providers have been on the front lines of the pandemic, and they believe the protests should continue despite health concerns.
Some of the country’s most respected providers signed a letter over the weekend saying the protests should not be shut down over health concerns. They also included a list of tips to help individuals protest safely, including wearing a mask, staying six feet apart, standing away from others when yelling or chanting, and proper hygiene.
They also denounced the use of tear gas during the protests, as this may increase the chances of transmission. People start coughing and wiping their faces when exposed to tear gas, which can lead to the spread of germs.
Providers are also urging local officials to ramp up virus testing and treatment in these areas, so protesters can quickly find out if they have the virus and self-isolate as needed. They say some people will get sick, but as long as treatment and testing are available, the protests do not pose a risk to public safety.
The letter is much more than a public health memo. It goes on to compare the threat of white supremacy to COVID-19, saying issues of racism need to be addressed as urgently as the pandemic. They argue that racism is making the pandemic worse for people of color. Many minority communities lack access to testing and treatment, exacerbating racial health disparities.
The letter reads: “We created the letter in response to emerging narratives that seemed to malign demonstrations as risky for the public health because of Covid-19. Instead, we wanted to present a narrative that prioritizes opposition to racism as vital to the public health, including the epidemic response. We believe that the way forward is not to suppress protests in the name of public health but to respond to protesters’ demands in the name of public health, thereby addressing multiple public health crises.”
White Coats for Black Lives
Across the country, healthcare providers have been staging their own protests. At the Logan Heights Family Health Center in San Diego, CA, dozens of doctors, nurses, and staff took a knee in honor of George Floyd. Similar demonstrations took place around the same time across the country.
This has become what’s known as the “White Coats for Black Lives” movement. More healthcare providers seem to be speaking out against institutional racism than ever before. Younger generations of doctors and nurses are seeing the effects of racism in real-time. Beyond police brutality, providers are shining a spotlight on the egregious health inequalities between white and black Americans, including higher rates of chronic disease, increased infant mortality rates, and shorter lifespans.
Separating Fact from Fiction
So, how risky are the protests?
In reality, very few transmissions have been linked to outdoor settings. The virus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets. When we are outside, the droplets that come out of our mouth disperse into the air much more quickly than they would if we were inside, rapidly decreasing the chances of transmission.
However, large crowds will increase your risk. That’s why it’s best to stay active when protesting, such as walking down the street or sidewalk, instead of huddling together in large groups. Police should also avoid trapping or cornering protesters in tight areas to reduce crowding. Keeping streets open to pedestrians will increase social distancing.
As a healthcare provider, show your support for the Black Lives Matter protests. These providers are here to set the record straight in terms of the health risks of protesting. We are still in a global pandemic, but unfortunately, institutional racism lives on.