Twin Plagues Of COVID-19 And Police Brutality Rock United States – Both Affect Minorities Disproportionately
Police handcuff and arrest protestors in Brooklyn, New York. Even in peaceful protests, social distancing crumbles.

“I can’t breathe” could have been a slogan for those suffering the worst effects of COVID-19. But now it has become the battle cry of Americans angered over the police killing by strangulation of a Minneapolis man, George Floyd, last week. 

While this is the latest in a years-long series of violent events involving African American men and women who were abruptly shot, choked or otherwise killed by police for either minor offenses or no offense at all, it has heightened significance in the wake of the widespread economic and social disparities created by Covid-19 pandemic.   

What the New York Times called the “parallel plagues” of COVID-19 and police brutality have both taken an outsize toll on American’s minorities—sparking outrage and grief across a nation already polarized by racial, ethnic and economic divisions that have been heightened by Covid-19. 

And indeed, civil violence is also a public health threat, both recognized by the World Health Organization as well as tracked by countless experts.

“The same broad-sweeping structural racism that enables police brutality against black Americans is also responsible for higher mortality among black Americans with Covid-19,” Maimuna Majumder, a Harvard epidemiologist also working on the Covid-19 response, told Vox.

African-American Deaths from COVID-19: 2-3 Times More than Expected
Protesters with hands up, symbolic of the Black Lives Matter movement, at a peaceful Minneapolis protest over the death of George Floyd

For Americans, Minneapolis has long had a reputation as a progressive and tolerant city and state, graced with higher than average incomes and educational levels and a strong social welfare net, compared to many other parts of the US. However, the protests that began in Minneapolis quickly spread over the weekend to some 140 other urban centers, which face even sharper racial and economic divides. The circle of violence quickly choked Washington DC, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York City – where poor and working class minority communities often live in close proximity to the national power centers of government, business and culture.

The brutal scenes of police pushback against the protestors captured on Twitter and Instagram, fueled a feedback loop of yet more outrage and waves of demonstrations. 

“Last night was an ugly night in the state and the country,” remarked New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press conference on Sunday.

A national analysis of data from the COVID Racial Tracker, finds that African-American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population, National Public Radio reported. In four states, the rate is three or more times greater.  In some 42 states plus Washington D.C., Hispanics/Latinos also make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population. White deaths from COVID-19 are lower than their share of the population in 37 states and the District of Columbia, the analysis also found.  

Other studies have found that low socio-economic status is closely associated with crowded living conditions and a higher rate of other chronic health conditions, all of which raise the risks of serious illness from COVID-19.

African-Americans make up 35 percent of coronavirus cases in Minneapolis, though they are less than 20 percent of the city’s population.” “By one estimate, black people accounted for at least 29 percent of known Covid-19 cases in Minnesota, despite making up about 6 percent of the state’s population, reported VOX.

Critics have also compared the very hard line taken by US President Donald Trump against the current wave of protests to his much softer line vis a vis the gun-bearing demonstrators that marched around business centers and state capitals, such as Lansing Michigan, only a few weeks ago, demanding that COVID-19 lockdown measures be ended.

Tweet compares President Trump’s reaction to protests against lockdown in early May and police brutality last week.

The United States is not the only COVID-19 epicentre now facing major social upheaval. In Sao Paolo, Brazilians were met by a hail of police rubber bullet fire when they came out into the streets to protest President Jair Bolsonaro’s laissez faire handling of the crisis over the weekend.

Meanwhile, in Brazilia, Bolsonaro joined protestors in Brasilia demanding the total reopening of the country, as well as the shutdown of Congress and the Supreme Court – which is set to hear an investigation over the president’s allegedly illegal interference with Federal Police. The protests rocked major cities as the country marked 500,000 COVID-19 infections, with the fourth highest number of deaths worldwide – outpaced only by the US, the United Kingdom and Italy.  

In a parallel development, the US sent two million doses of hydroxychloroquine to Brazil, reported the White House on Sunday. The anti-malarial drug will be used to treat Brazilians infected with COVID-19, the White House said. This was despite the fact that a growing body of evidence indicates that hydroxychloroquine can increase mortality and lead to heart complications in people with Covid-19.

United States Continues Business Reopenings

While some US cities were put under tough curfews due to the wave of unrest and violence, the reopening of businesses following the COVID-19 lockdown has continued apace. 

In New York, Governor Cuomo announced Sunday that dentists could reopen their offices statewide on Monday. He said that overall cases in the state continued their sharp decline – although there were still 1,110 new infections reported overnight Saturday-Sunday.  New York State has seen a total of some 370,000 virus cases, and more people have died in New York State alone than in any other country, except for Italy and the United Kingdom. 

On the far end of the continent, however, Alaska saw an uptick in cases in the past few days, reporting some 30 new cases  on Sunday, the largest increase seen since April 1-2 when cases peaked at 187. Alaska was one of the first states to open restaurants and rollback business restrictions in mid-April. On May 22, Alaskan Governor Mike said “it will all be open just like it was prior to the virus,” at a press conference.

On Sunday, some 600 Americans died from COVID-19 – in a week that saw mortality nearly double, and then decline again. 

WHO Warns Against Infection Spread From Mass Gatherings  

Protests seen in the US may also increase risks of refueling the US centres of the outbreak, politicians and some public experts have also worried.

Los Angelos Mayor Eric Garcetti warned that the protests could become “super-spreader events” – although other public health experts said that the outdoor settings may mitigate infection spread.

“The outdoor air dilutes the virus and reduces the infectious dose that might be out there, and if there are breezes blowing, that further dilutes the virus in the air,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times. “There was literally a lot of running around, which means they’re exhaling more profoundly, but also passing each other very quickly.”

However Howard Markel, a medical historian, countred that “Public gatherings are public gatherings — it doesn’t matter what you’re protesting or cheering,” he told The Times. Screaming and shouting slogans during a protest also can accelerate the virus spread, Markel said, while tear gas and pepper spray used to disperse crowds, also cause people to tear up and cough, and further increasing respiratory secretions and the possibility of transmission. Police barricades, arrests and efforts to move in and around crowds also results in more contact in tight spaces.

And while some of the US protestors have been donning masks and attempting to keep a distance, many precautions are thrown to the wind during the kinds of spontaneous protests now being seen in the United States, he added.

The risks of virus spread in uncontrolled mass gatherings were echoed by WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and senior WHO scientists at in a press briefing on Monday.

“Mass gatherings have the potential to act as super spreading events,” Dr Tedros said, even though he made no mention of the wave of US protests.  He announced that WHO was releasing updated guidance to help organizations determine how and when mass gatherings can safely resume.

“The close contact between people can pose a risk,”said WHO’s Technical Lead for COVID-19 Maria van Kerkhove, adding that such events need “rigorous planning” to ensure that physical distancing is not forgotten.

“And we need to ensure that in locations that are considering these…mass gathering events, that you have a system in place to prevent and detect and respond to any such cases.” she added. 

After a tough, public rebuke of protestors that rioted in the city’s streets over the weekend, saying that they had dishonored the memory of the slain George Floyd, Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, had a simple piece of advice. She told them to: “go get a COVID test this week.”


Image Credits: G. Ginsberg/HPW, Jenny Salita.

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