MANHATTAN (CN) — Focused on pandemic response as much as racism, New York City epidemiologists warned Monday that protests over the police killing of an unarmed black man can cause Covid-19 infections to surge in the same minority groups fighting for justice.
“I'm 100% sure that it will increase the cases the next few weeks,” Kitaw Demissie, dean and professor at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University School of Public Health, said of the weekend’s protests.
“In two weeks, we'll see more cases,” Demissie said in a phone interview Monday. “Another two weeks after that, we’ll see an increase in deaths from Covid-19. … I’m confident that will happen.”
In New York City, where the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus has hit hardest, blacks and Hispanics are dying of at twice the rate of their white and Asian neighbors.
The area has endured one of the country’s strictest lockdowns this spring to slow the virus’s spread, but this weekend it looked like many others across the country protesting the fatal arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis, even after the charges were brought against the police officer seen kneeling on his neck in a video of the killing that has gone viral.
This weekend, cities where protests became violent experienced looting, fires, and violent clashes with police. With 200,830 cases of Covid-19 in their city, as well as 21,607 confirmed and probable deaths from the virus, New York City officials joined many others Monday in setting a curfew from 11 p.m. until 5 a.m.
But epidemiologists like Demissie also emphasize that Floyd’s death raises its problems from a public health standpoint. “Racism, structural racism and police brutality are definitely a public health issue, and a public health problem in this country for a long time,” Demissie said.
The point is one shard by Dustin Duncan, a Columbia epidemiologist.
“These dual pandemics of Covid infection and mortality, and disparities and structural inequalities and racism coexist,” Duncan said in a phone interview Monday.
“And so while I, as an epidemiologist, a person who cares about humanity, I'm concerned for people getting infected with Covid … I'm also concerned about racism, and the persistence of racism in American society,” he added.
Both Demissie and Duncan are black.
Since coronavirus has a roughly two-week incubation period, any cases spread through the protests might not appear by the time New York City officially enters Phase 1 of reopening, expected next Monday, June 8.
“In terms of impact on our reopening, I see none,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday of the protests. His 25-year-old daughter Chiara was among the protestors arrested over the weekend.
Duncan said the June 8 reopening timeline was too soon, anyway.
“I think from a health standpoint, we’re not ready” to reopen, he said in a phone interview Monday.
In prepared remarks at his daily news briefing Monday, de Blasio did not even mention the pandemic that has been ravaging his city for months, focusing instead on the protests. While he defended the NYPD over the weekend after two police SUVs drove into a crowd of protestors, de Blasio somewhat changed his tune Monday.
“There is no situation where a police vehicle should drive into a crowd of protestors or New Yorkers of any kind,” he said. “It is dangerous, it is unexpected … There were extenuating circumstances, I believe, because of incidents that happened earlier.” He didn’t specify what those circumstances or events were, but said the incident was under investigation.
All other regions of the state have begun their reopening processes, with some already in Phase 2. New York state counts 371,111 cases and 23,959 deaths, though that number is likely low as the state only tracks virus deaths confirmed with testing.