How to square the circle of insisting on social distancing to fight the spread of COVID-19 while supporting large-scale protests? Public-health experts are here to help, as is Shannon Palus of Slate. “Public Health Experts Say the Pandemic Is Exactly Why Protests Must Continue,” reads the headline to the story, which notably lacks anyone who is willing to say that the protests will reduce the death toll from the disease or even to deny that it will increase them.
The central claim, rather, is that racism is (quoting one of the experts) “one of the more dangerous infectious diseases” and that fighting it is therefore a blow for public health even if it comes at the price of spreading COVID-19. “In the long term, breaking down structural racism is an unequivocal public health good,” Palus writes.
But even if we grant that premise — something that the slipperiness of the phrase “breaking down structural racism” counsels against — the planted axiom is that these protests are likely to be an effective means of reducing racism. It is not at all obvious that they are, especially when the protests spill over into violence and looting.
What should also comfort us about the protests’ role in spreading disease, Palus writes, is that they are “happening as states are relaxing stay at home orders, as largely white crowds head to pool parties and brunch.” (Let’s pause to marvel at the rigorous empiricism, doubtless expert-approved, by which we can ascertain that it’s “largely white crowds” that are exercising newly recovered freedoms.) Because of this, another expert tells Palus that if COVID-19 cases spike, “we’re not going to be able to pin this on the protests.”
It’s a point that is logically incompatible with Palus’s next move, which is to try to pin any such increase in cases on the police. Note again, though, that Palus and her expert aren’t denying that protests will spread a deadly disease. They’re just saying it won’t be possible to prove how much they do it. Which underscores that this is just politics. If racism can reasonably be likened to a dangerous infectious disease, so, surely, can stupidity.
Update: I got the spelling of Palus’s name wrong, and have fixed it. My apologies to her and to readers.