- Brin nelsonscience journalist
- Seattle, Washington, USA
Shortly before noon on June 5, 2020, dozens of medical workers in blue robes and face masks, some in white robes, walked across the street from the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle to a small grassy space, divided in half by the sidewalk and benches. There, at lunchtime, more than 100 people kept their distance from each other and knelt for 8 minutes 46 seconds.
The long minute of silence represented the exact length of time that a police officer in Minneapolis knelt on the neck of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, on May 25. Floyd’s death in police custody, partly documented in a witness video in which Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe,” caused weeks of rioting, protests and demonstrations against police racism and violence that erupted in all 50 states USA and several countries around the world.
For many healthcare professionals, protesting against a form of systemic racism and violence in a viral pandemic that disproportionately affected some communities of the same minority has become a tricky balancing act affecting their own health, the health of their patients and the health of society.
The day after the tribute at the University of Washington Medical Center, a separate protest march brought together thousands of healthcare workers and their supporters in downtown Seattle. Other rallies crossed the city, blocking the main thoroughfares. And then, shortly after midnight on June 7, police clashed with screaming demonstrators in an area known for its political activity, among clouds of tear gas, pepper spray and grenade launchers.
A growing group of doctors, nurses, researchers, and other healthcare professionals in Seattle and across the United States are facing opposition from critics who are wondering if healthcare officials should encourage mass demonstrations since the 19th birthday riot. Their answer: police racism and brutality are also public health emergencies with long-term consequences. They wrote public letters, launched petitions, and organized marches throughout the United States.
Estell Williams, assistant professor of general surgery at the University of Washington, organized a rally on June 6 in Seattle with her husband Edwin Lindo, a professor in the family medicine department at the university. Racism, they said, should be seen as a powerful disease that can kill just like Covid-19 does.
“The ultimate goal of these protests is to improve our community, and we care about security and realize that the pandemic is still ongoing, and we want to save our lives,” Williams said. But for her family and others in the black community, she added, stress from racism and police violence can increase the risk of chronic diseases, which in turn can increase susceptibility to covid-19.
“Condemning police racism and violence as a public health crisis is the essence and intent of what happened on Saturday,” Lindo said.
What are the risks?
Some supportive healthcare workers chose not to march on their own due to the risk of contracting the virus during often tightly organized outdoor protests and rallies where shouting, singing and singing can help disperse the viral particles.
Trevor Bedford, Computing Biologist at Seattle Cancer Research Center Fred Hutchinson published his well-grounded assumption about how protests and police responses can increase the number of new infections caused by the covid-19 virus, triggering an online debate about compromises and whether this is possible. or it’s even useful to make such predictions.1 The calculations were complicated due to the long lags between case detection and identification, jumps in the number of cases in several states that weakened the mandate for social distance, and constant or decreasing numbers in Seattle, New York, Minneapolis and some other cities with massive protests from end of May.
Numerous observers note that the anti-racist movement adopted face masks, both as protection against Covid-19 and as a symbol of how many minority communities remained unprotected and vulnerable. Face masks decorated with slogans such as Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breathe appeared across the country, and flyers for several marches in Seattle emphasized wearing masks and distance from society, although the latter is often more difficult in practice .
Sheris Epstein, a permanent doctor at the University of Washington and the teaching staff for the UW Underrepresented Residents and Fellows Network, helped organize a solidarity demonstration on June 5 at the medical center. That day, it was one of five people who were held in medical towns throughout the city.
As a healthcare provider who saw the effects of the lack of personal protective equipment and the devastating effects of covid-19, especially on black and colored indigenous people, Epstein said she personally decided to protest, participate in large meetings and even start helping them. But she also saw how racism and legitimized oppression are inextricably linked to the disproportionate health effects of the same minorities. “I think the seriousness of the social movement is much greater than others,” she said.
The answer of one doctor
On the same day on Friday, volunteer Devin Speake helped organize a temporary station of free snacks, bottled water and medicine for protesters in front of Vermillion, an art gallery and a bar in the neighborhood where the biggest protests took place. Speke said he emphasizes infection control measures, such as washing surfaces of donated items, encourages frequent hand washing by volunteers, and hands out free face masks and a hand sanitizer.
Speke, who had undergone medical training while staying at the Coast Guard, volunteered for a hospital morgue during a New York meeting of 19 people. “When I worked in Brooklyn, almost every body I worked with was black or Hispanic, and this was a direct result of systemic inequalities in health and wealth,” he said.
He would like face masks to act not only as protection, but also as a symbolic part of the movement against the effects of systemic racism on health. The people he encountered received a message that he and other volunteers had posted on posters in the main protest zone. On the contrary, during rallies against home orders and the closure of enterprises, many protesters pointedly refused to wear masks and harassed those who did it.
Many health experts claim that Covid 19’s risk was increased due to police tactics, such as the widespread use of tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowd3 and mass arrests in which protesters are united in central waiting areas. In addition to the possibility of inflammation and damage to the respiratory tract, tear-causing chemicals can cause severe coughing and sneezing, runny nose, severe mucous membranes and eye irritation – all of which can facilitate the spread of covid-19.
On June 5, the mayor of Seattle and the police chief pledged to introduce a 30-day tear gas moratorium to control the crowd. But right after midnight two days later, the police used tear gas, pepper spray and grenades to disperse the demonstrators, citing considerations of “life safety” after the demonstrators allegedly threw bottles and stones and pointed lasers into the eyes of the officers.
It is said that he wore a N95 mask and gloves for protection, voluntarily offering his services, recalled how he rinsed the protesters’ eyes with physiological saline after tear gas covered the protest area on Capitol Hill late on June 7. When he did, three or four protesters coughed, spat, and mucus dripped on him as a result of their symptoms. “It was all over my leg and hands, so I was very concerned about it,” he said.
Despite the risks, protest organizers say medical workers joined the movement en masse. “There was a huge outpouring of support,” Williams said. And the ongoing protests and rallies around the city were mostly peaceful, as Seattle police removed the barricades and temporarily vacated the site on June 8.
“Historically, healthcare professionals have focused on care in the four walls of a hospital or clinic,” Lindo said. “And now I think that they see the impact that is required and the changes that are required outside of it to ensure the safety of our patients when they return home.”
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