Social Distancing is not top priority now, COVID don’t care

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06 Jun 2020, 2:29 am

Suddenly, Public Health Officials Say Social Justice Matters More Than Social Distance

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For months, public health experts have urged Americans to take every precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19—stay at home, steer clear of friends and extended family, and absolutely avoid large gatherings.

Now some of those experts are broadcasting a new message: It’s time to get out of the house and join the mass protests against racism.

We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, tweeted on Tuesday. “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
“The injustice that’s evident to everyone right now needs to be addressed,” Abraar Karan, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician who’s exhorted coronavirus experts to amplify the protests' anti-racist message, told me. "While I have voiced concerns that protests risk creating more outbreaks, the status quo wasn’t going to stop #covid19 either," he wrote on Twitter this week.

It’s a message echoed by media outlets and some of the most prominent public health experts in America, like former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who loudly warned against efforts to rush reopening but is now supportive of mass protests. Their claim: If we don’t address racial inequality, it’ll be that much harder to fight Covid-19. There’s also evidence that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors, especially if people wear masks.

The experts maintain that their messages are consistent—that they were always flexible on Americans going outside, that they want protesters to take precautions and that they're prioritizing public health by demanding an urgent fix to systemic racism.

But their messages are also confounding to many who spent the spring strictly isolated on the advice of health officials, only to hear that the need might not be so absolute after all. It’s particularly nettlesome to conservative skeptics of the all-or-nothing approach to lockdown, who point out that many of those same public health experts—a group that tends to skew liberal—widely criticized activists who held largely outdoor protests against lockdowns in April and May, accusing demonstrators of posing a public health danger. Conservatives, who felt their own concerns about long-term economic damage or even mental health costs of lockdown were brushed aside just days or weeks ago, are increasingly asking whether these public health experts are letting their politics sway their health care recommendations.

“Their rules appear ideologically driven as people can only gather for purposes deemed important by the elite central planners,” Brian Blase, who worked on health policy for the Trump administration, told me, an echo of complaints raised by prominent conservative commentators like J.D. Vance and Tim Carney.

Conservatives also have seized on a Twitter thread by Drew Holden, a commentary writer and former GOP Hill staffer, comparing how politicians and pundits criticized earlier protests but have been silent on the new ones or even championed them.

“I think what’s lost on people is that there have been real sacrifices made during lockdown,” Holden told me. “People who couldn’t bury loved ones. Small businesses destroyed. How can a health expert look those people in the eye and say it was worth it now?”

Some members of the medical community acknowledged they’re grappling with the U-turn in public health advice, too. “It makes it clear that all along there were trade-offs between details of lockdowns and social distancing and other factors that the experts previously discounted and have now decided to reconsider and rebalance,” said Jeffrey Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School. Flier pointed out that the protesters were also engaging in behaviors, like loud singing in close proximity, which CDC has repeatedly suggested could be linked to spreading the virus.

“At least for me, the sudden change in views of the danger of mass gatherings has been disorienting, and I suspect it has been for many Americans,” he told me.

The shift in experts’ tone is setting up a confrontation amid the backdrop of a still-raging pandemic. Tens of thousands of new coronavirus cases continue to be diagnosed every day—and public health experts acknowledge that more will likely come from the mass gatherings, sparked by the protests over George Floyd’s death while in custody of the Minneapolis police last week.

“It is a challenge,” Howard Koh, who served as assistant secretary for health during the Obama administration, told me. Koh said he supports the protests but acknowledges that Covid-19 can be rapidly, silently spread. “We know that a low-risk area today can become a high-risk area tomorrow,” he said.

Yet many say the protests are worth the risk of a possible Covid-19 surge, including hundreds of public health workers who signed an open letter this week that sought to distinguish the new anti-racist protests “from the response to white protesters resisting stay-home orders.”

Those protests against stay-at-home orders “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives,” according to the letter’s nearly 1,300 signatories. “Protests against systemic racism, which fosters the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 on Black communities and also perpetuates police violence, must be supported.”

“Staying at home, social distancing, and public masking are effective at minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” the letter signers add. “However, as public health advocates, we do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission.”

Was it fair to decry conservatives’ protests about the economy while supporting these new protests? And if tens of thousands of people get sick from Covid-19 as a result of these mass gatherings against racism, is that an acceptable trade-off? Those are questions that a half-dozen coronavirus experts who said they support the protests declined to directly answer.

“I don’t know if it’s really for me to comment,” said Karan. He did add: “Addressing racism, it can’t wait. It should’ve happened before Covid. It’s happening now. Perhaps this is our time to change things.”

“Many public health experts have already severely undermined the power and influence of their prior message,” countered Flier. “We were exposed to continuous daily Covid death counts, and infections/deaths were presented as preeminent concerns compared to all other considerations—until nine days ago,” he added.

“Overnight, behaviors seen as dangerous and immoral seemingly became permissible due to a ‘greater need,’” Flier said.

The frustration from some conservatives is an outgrowth of how Covid-19 has affected the United States so far. In Blue America, the pandemic is a dire threat that’s killed tens of thousands in densely packed urban centers like New York City—and warnings from infectious-disease experts like Tony Fauci carry the weight of real-world implications. In many parts of Red America, rural states like Alaska and Wyoming still have fewer than 1,000 confirmed cases, and some residents are asking why they shuttered their economies for a virus that had little visible effect over the past three months.

People on both sides are already trying to figure out whom to blame if coronavirus cases jump as widely expected after hundreds of thousands of Americans spilled into the streets this past week, sometimes in close proximity for hours at a time. When we discussed the possible risks of a large public gathering, protest supporters like Karan and Koh seized on police behaviors —like using pepper spray and locking up protesters in jail cells—which they noted created significant risks of their own to spread Covid-19.

“Trump will try to blame protestors for [the] spike in coronavirus cases he caused,” a spokesperson for Protect Our Care, a progressive-aligned health care group, wrote in a memo circulated to media members on Wednesday. While acknowledging the risks of mass protests, “the reality is that the spikes in cases have been happening well before the protests started—in large part because Trump allowed federal social distancing guidelines to expire, failed to adequately increase testing, and pushed governors to reopen against the advice of medical experts,” the spokesperson claimed.

Contra those claims, public health experts like Koh generally acknowledge that it’s going to be difficult to tease apart why Covid-19 cases could jump in the coming weeks, given the sheer number of Americans joining mass gatherings, states relaxing restrictions and other factors that could pose challenges for disease-tracing on a large scale.

Some experts also are cautious of condemning states for rolling back restrictions after inconclusive evidence from states that already moved to do so. For instance, a widely shared Atlantic article in April framed the decision by Georgia’s GOP governor to relax social-distancing restrictions as an “experiment in human sacrifice.” A month later, Georgia’s daily coronavirus cases have stayed relatively level and it’s not clear whether the rollback led to significant new outbreaks.

What is clear is that the only successful tactic to stop Covid-19 remains social distancing and, failing that, thoroughly wearing personal protective equipment. Yet there’s also considerable video and photo evidence of maskless protesters, sometimes closely huddled together with public officials—also sans mask—in efforts to defuse tensions, or recoiling from police attacks that forced them to remove protection.

That means a collision between the protests and coronavirus is coming, which will force decisions big and small. Will local leaders need to reimpose restrictions when cases go up? Will that advice be trusted? Or is it possible that their guidance was too draconian all along?

“The virus doesn’t care about the nature of a protest, no matter how deserving the cause is,” Holden said.


The Backlash Is Building
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The pandemic is still with us, but the suffocating regime of stigma and shame that once enforced restrictions on social interaction is gone. It disappeared along with the incentives that compelled primarily left-leaning Democrats to wield it like a weapon against those who questioned their remedies for the ongoing outbreak.

“Suddenly,” Politico reported, “public health officials say social justice matters more than social distance.” That dispatch compiled quote after quote from academics, epidemiologists, and medical practitioners in prestigious institutions insisting that the political imperatives of this moment vastly outweigh public health concerns.

This week, more than 1,000 epidemiologists, doctors, social workers, medical students, and healthcare professionals put their names to an open letter affirming that nationwide anti-police violence demonstrations address “the paramount public health problem of pervasive racism.” That word—“paramount”—establishes that which was only conveyed in the subtext: the all-consuming pandemic and the Depression-era levels of unemployment and economic contraction engineered to fight it doesn’t matter anymore.

Those supposed public health experts are not alone. The politicians whose prohibitive commitment to the preservation of all life even at the expense of civil liberties and economic stability have all but abandoned those concerns. The nation’s most enthusiastic lockdown enforcers, all of whom we were told were guided only by the science, are suddenly guided by the politics of protest.

Even with the most stringent phase-one restrictions still in place, Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy celebrated his state’s residents “taking to the streets.” Indeed, he mocked those who “protest what day nail salons are opening”—the service providers who also provide for their communities and families, and who support the state with their taxes—as being engaged in something less noble than demonstrating against police abuses. It was only a few weeks ago that Murphy was admonishing New Jerseyans and, especially, “young people” who had failed to abide by social-distancing guidelines as “selfish.” The conditions around the pandemic did not change overnight. His political incentives did.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has been among the nation’s most aggressive lockdown enthusiasts, utterly unmoved by appeals from those for whom such draconian restrictions were unendurable. When protests broke out against her proscriptions on social and economic activity, she reprimanded those unruly Michiganders who, she claimed, would be responsible for lockdown’s indefinite extension. Shoulder-to-shoulder demonstrations, she said, are “precisely what makes this kind of disease drag out and expose more people.” Yesterday, Whitmer walked at the head of a densely packed protest march through Detroit. “Elections matter,” the governor told the crowd of demonstrators. Indeed, they do.

In early May, New York City Bill de Blasio dispatched the NYPD to break up small gatherings of people exercising their First Amendment rights to protest the ongoing lockdown orders, issuing summonses and detaining the most recalcitrant. “People who want to make their voices heard, there’s plenty of ways to do it without gathering in person,” the mayor said. One month later, de Blasio has suddenly discovered the virtue of protesters, so long as they were protesting in a cause he found sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said dismissively when asked about the disparate enforcement of his restrictions, “that is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services.”

You could spend all day itemizing the hypocrisies we’ve had to endure. Suffice it to say, the contempt of these lawmakers toward their most complacent citizens appears boundless. They were never the dispassionate, data-driven empiricists they pretended to be. But, you might think, at least the disregard these protesters have shown toward social distancing guidelines has shattered the consensus around the value of lockdown. You’d be wrong.

While phased re-openings are underway around much of the country, the resumption of anything resembling normal economic and social life is still a long way off. And if these gatherings do reverse the gains America’s cities have made in combatting this outbreak, the metrics that were once used to gauge a region’s readiness to emerge from their hiding holes will start moving in the wrong direction. In New York City, for example, they already are.

State-level lockdown orders still have the force of law. An individual business owner might try to defy them, but that individual will still be subject to removal orders, summonses, municipal-court appearances, and fines. It was already painfully obvious that lockdown was enforceable only as long as the group that defied those orders was small enough to disperse. These protests have demonstrated that it isn’t just having the right politics that matter to our most performative lockdown proponents—it’s the size of your crowd.

This is not the rule of law. Whether or not these orders are applied is contingent upon the power of the forces arrayed against them. If that power is sufficient, the force of law is null. But what are America’s law-abiding citizens to do when it seems so evident that the law applies only to them?

These are America’s stakeholders. They do not gather in numbers sufficient to overrule the restrictions on their lives and livelihoods. They do not commit vandalism and property destruction. They do not hold the system they believe in hostage. They have only two options to register their disapproval—vote or leave. But rest assured, their disapproval is rising.

These citizens are not blind to the abuses of law enforcement or the prevalence of racial disparities in American society. Opinion polls suggest the public is deeply sympathetic to the cause of racial equality. They support the kinds of reforms the peaceful variant of these demonstrations are demanding. But what the lockdown’s most galling hypocrites have done is to answer injustice with injustice.

They enforce these restrictions selectively, targeting only those who agree to be compelled by them. They fail to protect businesses from rioting and looting even while barring their proprietors from taking on that burden themselves. While the Americans who chafe—justly and understandably, in some cases—under excessive policing are acknowledged, those who perceive themselves to be acutely unprotected by authorities are ignored. They are uncared for, undiscussed, and unappreciated. That is the recipe for a powerful and long-lived political backlash.

“For my friends, everything,” the Brazilian strongman Getulio Vargas is credited with saying. “For my enemies, the law.” America’s complicit and anxious majority can be forgiven for thinking that they are, in the view of their political leaders, the enemy. It would be foolish to pretend as though they won’t start acting like it.

The irony is that the MAGA reopen people will have gotten more of what they wanted from people they consider libtard progressive snowflakes then they got from storming a statehouse with assault weapons. I think no matter what happens we are not going back to full shutdown. The cliches shutting the barn door after the horses have escaped and you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again apply.

It is hard to predict how this is going to play out as we don’t know enough about coronavirus to know if it will spike.

Certainly if it does not spike distrust of authority and expertise already at record lows will crater. If coronavirus does return full bore the generational conflict as much hype as reality will go up as much as coronavirus was predicted to if people did not social distance. How that will effect election results I have no clue.

As a tongue cancer surviver with remnant swallowing issues I am a stakeholder, most of those young people out demonstrating, most of whom are not risking more then feeling really bad for a couple of weeks. Without knowing how this turns out I don’t know if the rioters and protesters have freed me from restrictions and fear or condemned me to months more of self imposed lockdown, further disability, or death.


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