A group of Black Lives Matter protesters holding signs and wearing masks to protect from Covid-19.

Protesters Weigh Risks: Avoid a Virus, or Let Injustice Stand

Mass protests took place in cities across the country this week, sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned and handcuffed on the ground by Minneapolis police officers — including one who pressed a knee into Floyd’s neck for roughly nine minutes as he begged for air — on May 25. The events leading to Floyd’s death, many of which were documented in harrowing videos captured by bystanders and nearby security cameras, has helped propel 10 days of civil unrest across the country, with protesters calling for an overhaul of a criminal justice system that, research has shown, disproportionately incarcerates — and kills — black people.

The mass gatherings are taking place in the middle of a global pandemic. Covid-19 has now killed around 108,000 people in the U.S., and the protests this week raised concerns that the gatherings will fuel a new spike in cases.

That risk has, in many cities, been exacerbated by the police response. Officers have crowded protesters into tight spaces where distancing is impossible. Some police have also responded to peaceful protesters with tear gas — in one case at the direct order of the White House, in order to secure a presidential photograph in front of a church. Originally deployed as a chemical weapon during World War I, tear gas causes people to cough violently, potentially accelerating the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. It can also trigger asthma and damage lung tissue, and some military research suggests that tear gas exposure raises the risk of contracting acute respiratory diseases. “As an immunologist, it scares me,” Purvi Parikh, a physician at NYU Langone Health, told ProPublica.

Still, the simple act of gathering during a pandemic, often with the vocal support of public health experts and health care workers, has led some critics to question why prominent voices in public health are making an exception for this one kind of large group.

In reply, many of those experts have urged a broader view of what it means to fight for the public good. The protests are “vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of black people in the United States,” argues an open letter signed by hundreds of physicians, public health experts, and infectious disease specialists.

“White supremacy,” they emphasize, “is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19.” Indeed, the pandemic has disproportionately killed black Americans, and officials were often slow to track, acknowledge, and respond to the glaring racial disparities in Covid-19 cases.

For many protesters, police violence and other disparities make the choice to gather clear, even amid the outbreak. “I think it’s a danger,” one protester in Oakland told the Verge. “But some things are worth it.”

Also in the news:

• A number of environmental groups voiced their support for those protesting against police brutality this week, seeking donations for activists and calling for legislative reform, among other actions. The League of Conservation voters co-signed a letter with other organizations asking Congress to ban restraint techniques that restrict oxygen or blood flow to the brain. Meanwhile, the youth-led Sunrise Movement provided guidance to protesters on how to avoid spreading Covid-19. While the environmental movement has historically been predominantly white, many environmental issues, including air and water pollution, have disproportionately impacted low-income and minority communities, and there has been a push in recent years for organizers to embrace a broader vision of environmental justice. Group leaders say they felt a duty to speak up. “We are not an organization that works primarily on the issue of anti-black police violence,” Hop Hopkins, director of strategic partnerships for the Sierra Club, told The Washington Post, “but we recognize that our work to end the violence of polluters who target black communities is deeply connected to the demand for justice for George Floyd.” (The Washington Post)

• New details are emerging about President Donald Trump’s administration’s Operation Warp Speed, an ambitious public-private partnership aimed at producing more than one hundred million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine by the beginning of 2021. The New York Times reports that the administration has narrowed the field of candidate vaccines to five finalists: vaccines being developed by drug makers Moderna, Merck, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca. (Citing people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported that the government will also be collaborating with two additional pharmaceutical firms.) The selected finalists will have access to government funds — beyond the $2.2 billion already given to three of the companies — and support with clinical trials and manufacturing. But some scientists continue to warn that the administration’s proposed timeline may be unrealistic. And a group of Democratic lawmakers are expressing concerns that the government contracts with the pharmaceutical companies remain shrouded in secrecy, and that it’s unclear what steps the administration will take to ensure that the vaccines are affordable to the broader public. “It endangers all of us if companies are allowed to charge exorbitant prices that cause families to hesitate or even decline to obtain vaccines or treatments,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter sent on Tuesday to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. (The New York Times)

• Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg faced backlash this week for his decision not to moderate a post by President Trump that described protesters in Minneapolis as “these THUGS” and said “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” While Twitter placed a warning on a Trump tweet with similar wording, saying it broke the platform’s rules about “glorifying violence,” Zuckerberg took to Facebook to defend his decision, saying the president’s post did not violate any of the site’s policies. Civil rights advocates, technology executives, and former Facebook employees criticized Zuckerberg’s inaction, and in a rare show of public opposition, hundreds of current staffers on Monday staged a “virtual walk-out” and spoke out through social media. Several employees posted public statements of resignation, with one software engineer expressing concern that Facebook “is on the wrong side of history.” Zuckerberg explained his decision in calls this week with Facebook employees and civil rights groups, which appear to have done little to quell the tension. Rashad Robinson, head of the racial justice non-profit Color of Change, told The Washington Post after the call that Zuckerberg “has no real understanding of the history or current impact of voter suppression, racism, or discrimination.” (Multiple sources)

• Citing an “economic emergency” in the United States arising from Covid-19, the White House signaled Thursday that President Trump would sign an executive order halting longstanding environmental protections in favor of accelerating development of mines, pipelines, and other infrastructure projects. In addition, under his direction, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to further reduce clean air standards. A White House spokesman described the action as necessary to rebuilding the country. By declaring an economic emergency, government officials can waive such rules in extreme circumstances. Environmental advocates say, though, that this action merely fits with the administration’s pattern of rolling back rules designed to protect the environment. Critics note that the president has waived environmental protections almost 30 times in order to fast-track development of his border wall. Thursday’s waiver decision targets the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and some environmental attorneys, noting that NEPA was passed some 50 years ago specifically to prevent arbitrary federal development decisions, predict challenges to this week’s actions in court. (The Washington Post).

• And finally: On Tuesday, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket landed back down on Earth, following the successful completion of a mission to deliver two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station — the first crewed spaceflight from the U.S. since 2011, and the first mission of its kind to be undertaken by a private company. On May 30, space shuttle program veterans Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley boarded the SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which the Falcon 9 then carried into orbit. In part of a mission dubbed “Demo-2”, the Crew Dragon spacecraft would proceed to detach itself from the upper stage of the rocket and maneuver itself to dock on the ISS, while the rocket itself return to earth. One day after launch, Hurley and Beckman boarded the International Space Station. SpaceX often reuses its rockets, but it has yet to be confirmed whether or not this particular Falcon 9 will see another flight. (Space.com)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.