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Black health experts view protesters with admiration, anxiety over exposure to COVID-19

“COVID-19 was a concern, but the anguish of witnessing another black man being murdered by the police with absolute disregard overpowered my fears of the coronavirus.”
Protesters take part in the March On Georgia, organized by NAACP, in response to the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta on June 15, 2020.Dustin Chambers / Getty Images

From his home in southwest Atlanta, Channing Baker heard the shots that killed Rayshard Brooks. The next night, he smelled the smoke from the burning fast-food restaurant where the shooting occurred. The next afternoon, Baker took to the streets.

That the coronavirus has disproportionately devastated the Black community did not deter Baker from joining the demonstrations. He put on his mask and left the house, inspired by the moment.

“To sit on the sidelines would be doing a disservice to myself and to those who marched before us,” Baker, 38, a senior project manager for a general contractor, told NBC News. “There were no hoses, no one being sprayed with water. I couldn’t be one of those people who’d rather sit home and have cocktails. Some people feel as long as it doesn’t affect their bubble, they don’t care. We are out there because we have a passion for humanity.”

That passion, he said, overrides concern over contracting COVID-19. “More people wore masks than not,” Baker said. “But it’s not a controllable algorithm. If the virus travels at an infectious rate that ‘they’ say it does, everybody is going to get it at some point. That’s not to say it’s not serious; it is very serious. But so is this cause, this moment. And it is worth the risk.”

Channing Baker, left, and friends marched to protest the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
Channing Baker, left, and friends marched to protest the killing of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.Courtesy Channing Baker

Baker’s sentiments crystalize the perspective of those participating in protests around the world after the death of George Floyd, despite a pandemic that has killed more than 116,000 people in the United States — at disproportionately higher rates for Blacks — and more than 435,000 across the globe. Still, thousands of protesters have ignored the public health guidelines to wear masks and maintain 6 feet of social distance as they demonstrate against police brutality.

Black health care experts find themselves in an emotional dilemma. They support the protesters, but want them to be healthy in the process. Dr. Enid Neptune, a pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, said she watches with equal parts admiration and trepidation as demonstrators gather.

“As a physician I have a heightened degree of concern,” Neptune said. “It’s good to see the diversity of the demonstrators, but it is still overly populated with African Americans. But that concern is balanced against the need to protest. ... The Black body is being devalued, so the protesters are protesting on merit, despite a pandemic.”

"That’s a very personal choice,” Neptune said of protesting, “and it’s not a choice that anyone can make for anyone else.”

Dr. Enid Neptune
Dr. Enid NeptuneJohns Hopkins Medical Institute

That perspective is shared by Samantha Myers, 30, an entrepreneur in Washington who has marched with protesters four times in the nation’s capital. The cause is too important to stay home, she said, adding that she felt more vulnerable in the face of law enforcement than she did about the prospects of contracting the coronavirus.

“But my community is subjected to having to witness the murders of people that look like us, without empathy, remorse or justice,” she said. “So it was important to me to march and continue the fight that my ancestors started.”

“COVID-19 was a concern,” she added, “but the anguish of witnessing another black man being murdered by the police with absolute disregard overpowered my fears of the coronavirus.”

She contrasted the concern over the pandemic with the frustration of seeing more black men dying at the hands of law enforcement.

“I didn’t feel safe with the police wearing riot gear, holding automatic weapons and tasers just feet away from me,” Myers said. “I felt uncomfortable in the presence of the police, in fear that I or a loved one would be injured while demanding justice for black lives and the end of systemic oppression.”

Baker also said the prospect of getting COVID-19 paled in comparison to need to speak to police officers manning the protest.

“I was obligated to be there,” he said. “I understand cops probably have one of the hardest jobs there is. But I wanted to confront them, face-to-face, and ask why they don’t act with compassion. Eye-to-eye, I asked them: ‘Why is there a ‘no-snitching’ policy within the ranks? Why don’t you cooperate and tell on the bad cops? It grows the issue when you don’t.’

“I got nothing. They just looked at me. I said, ‘You’re a prisoner in your own uniform,’” Baker said.

He said asked a female officer: "'You want to say something, don’t you?’ And she gave me the slightest nod, but it was clear she didn’t want any of her fellow cops to see it. That taught me a lot in that finite moment. Many of them are trapped in their own uniform.”

Baker said that experience made his participation worthwhile, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

“I’m marching again,” he said. “One thousand percent.”

Dr. Pierre Vigilance, Adjunct Professor of Health Policy & Management at George Washington University School of Public Health and Founder & Principal at HealthUp Strategic Advisors, said that he had watched the protests daily and that safety concerns were not the first thing he thought of.

Dr. Pierre Vigilance
Dr. Pierre Vigilance.INQVIRE Advisory Group.

“I understand what they are out there for. But masks protests are better than no masks. I am seeing those measures being taken, but not by everybody,” he said.

“Still, I often hear of these comparisons of the protests versus the mass gatherings, how they are all the same. Those are inappropriate. The point of the protests is to speak out on wrongdoings. That’s valid,” Vigilance said.

“The point of these other gatherings, like in the Ozarks, is to socialize,” he said, referring to a viral photo of a crowded pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri last month.

“At these pool parties, people are not wearing masks and are likely to become intoxicated, which will make them less likely to social distance. So, if we’re going to talk about the protests and their impact on this pandemic, they also need to be talking about the mass gatherings of people who are socializing not wearing masks or social distancing.”

Additionally, Neptune and Vigilance point out, the demonstrations are taking place outside, which lessens the chance of spreading COVID-19 than in confined indoor spaces.

“The bigger concern for me is who will be impacted by any coronavirus spikes,” Vigilance said, adding that the premature reopening of cities has contributed to a rise in COVID-19 cases. “In the short term and in the longer run it would be Black people having a deeper health care hole to dig out of.”

Neptune offered a couple of ways protesters could minimize the risk of transmission. One, during a march, recognize who is not wearing a mask and stay away from that group, “the way you do if you are driving and a car cuts you off. You lay back and let them go. Same thing can be done here.”

Two, she said, you have people handing out masks along the route for those who do not have one, the way water is distributed during marathons. “Not everyone will take a mask,” Neptune said. “But some will, and the more cases of people wearing masks, the better.”

Neptune said many Blacks are eschewing masks during the rallies for deeper reasons than ignoring safety guidelines. “One aspect of police-involved events that target African American men is the subtext that these persons are not seen, not recognized as people of value,” she said. “The ability to show one’s face is a way of saying, ‘This is what I look like, and I matter.’ So a mask can attenuate that assertion of individuality and importance and ‘This is who I am.’ That part of the protests has been under-examined.”

Protests Continue In Atlanta After Police Killing Of Rayshard Brooks
Protesters march to demand justice for Rayshard Brooks on June 16, 2020 in Atlanta.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

For Myers, all the talk about safety and the coronavirus mattered, but mattered less than the cause. She summed up the demonstrators’ position:

“Attending the marches were worth the risk to me because I am a Black woman in America whose life is impacted and could be in danger if involved with the police simply due to the color of my skin. We are in another moment of history where Black people have to fight for equality, and it’s a fight that when won will take a target off of my own back and others who look like me. I have to be a part of that fight.”