Protest, demand change — but, please, put on your mask
COVID-19 is much more dangerous to black people than the police.
Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1252 black people have been killed in a police shooting, whereas 21,878 blacks have died from COVID-19 (through May 26), and this is likely an underestimate. That means that in about three months, 17 times the number of black people have been killed by COVID-19 than from more than 5 years of police shootings.
Neither is acceptable, but COVID-19 is objectively much more deadly.
The Surgeon General said we should expect new outbreaks of COVID-19 resulting from the protests. To make matters worse, testing for COVID-19 is not universally available, despite insistent demands for the federal government to increase access. So, calls like the one from the Mayor of Atlanta for all protesters to get tested for COVID-19 after protesting fuel frustration that the government is tone deaf. For those black people who do get COVID-19 as a result of protesting and require hospitalization, evidence suggests that they are less likely to have health insurance coverage and often receive lower quality care.
Apart from infection and even death, COVID-19 will negatively impact the health of the black community in many other ways. Lack of access to food is probably the most pressing and sinister.
Let’s first think about the children. School closures mean that millions of black children have lost access to free or reduced-price meals, making them even more vulnerable to food insecurity or inconsistent access to nutritious food. Prior to COVID-19, twice as many black households experienced food insecurity as compared to the general population (21 percent versus 11 percent). Food insecurity among children is associated with a host of poor mental health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, suicide ideation as well as higher risk of being hospitalized and poorer general health.
This disparity in food insecurity will likely grow during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, meals from school accounted for up to two thirds of daily nutritional needs for some children. While the efforts of school districts to identify creative and effective ways to feed school children during COVID-19 are heroic, many children are falling through the cracks. In some cases, the protests have led school districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Chicago to suspend meal service indefinitely. Even if these closures are only for a few days, it is likely to mean hundreds of thousands of missed meals for children.
What about adults? How might their health be impacted by lack of food?
Like black children, black adults who experience increased food insecurity are also at higher risk for mental health problems like depression. In addition, they are at higher risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and poor sleep. Historical trauma, which can be thought of as past events targeting large groups of people (for example, slavery and social injustice), has also been shown to exacerbate health outcomes among black Americans.
Predominantly black neighborhoods are more likely to be without supermarkets and have greater access to unhealthy options like fast food and small, convenience stores. Access to large food retailers has been further limited by the protests as some stores have been burnt, damaged or temporarily closed. For example, Target, CVS and Walmart closed several stores in Minneapolis at the end of May, and Target has temporarily closed or shortened hours for 200 stores across the country. Some cities, such as Minneapolis, have also shut down public transit. This combined with historically high food prices, will make it that much harder for the black community to get food. In some neighborhoods, food access has been completely wiped out.
We also have to worry about education. School closures mean that many black children are likely to fall way behind in school. This is particularly true for those children with significant learning disabilities, those without parents who can support online learning for months, those who simply lack access to home computers and high-speed internet and households supporting multiple school-age children.
I hope peaceful protests continue and spread all over the country until meaningful action is taken to reduce police brutality, an unjust criminal justice system and other inequities in our nation. These current protests in response to George Floyd being killed by a white police officer reveal pent-up anger over institutional racism nationwide. Black people have every right to be fed up. They are being targeted and killed by the police at unacceptably high rates.
But, the lack of masks among protestors means that current COVID-19 hot spots will likely get worse and parts of the country where the curve is flattening will see an inevitable spike in infection and death — particularly among black people. This is because the scary reality of COVID-19 is that there are many silent carriers — people who are infected and have no idea. Plus, the rate of transmission is rapid. This means that it is not just going to affect the people who showed up and protested but also their grandparents, co-workers and many others.
The sad reality is that black people cannot count on the police to always protect them or the government to keep them safe from COVID-19. So, black people must protect themselves.
Without masks during the protests many more black people will die.
There is strength in numbers. So, I beg you to put on your masks and just yell a little louder to make your voices heard. Otherwise, these uprisings will kill huge swaths of the black population and #Blacklivesmatter.
Don’t just protest. Be agents of change — in law enforcement, in the courtroom, in the White House, in local government and in the community. Please do not just focus on surviving the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and police brutality. Make sure to thrive.
Sara N. Bleich, Ph.D, is a professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.