How will protests affect the pandemic?

Protesters in Seattle
Activists Malcolm Frankson (speaking) and Jack Eppard Barajas (right) discuss police reforms with a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Social distancing, masks and gloves are among measures being taken to avoid spreading coronavirus. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Epidemiologists say the crowding conditions associated with mass protests over police violence seem likely to add dozens of people, or perhaps even hundreds, to the daily death toll from coronavirus infections.

But they acknowledge that that these sorts of assessments involve a tradeoff between public health and social justice.

“Racism and state-sponsored violence are critical public health issues,” Trevor Bedford, a computational biologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, wrote in a weekend string of tweets. “We should also acknowledge that the specific action of large-scale public protest at this moment during the COVID-19 pandemic may result in perhaps more than 10 but less than 100 deaths per day.”

In response to feedback, Bedford later revised his estimate to “a highly speculative” guess of more than 50 but less than 500 extra deaths for each day of protest.

Bedford and other coronavirus trackers pointed out that the protests are coming amid widespread relaxation of strict rules on social distancing and business activities. That will make it all the more difficult to tease out the specific causes behind what’s likely to be an upswing in infections.

“The protests and potential to transmit virus are on a background of general societal opening,” Bedford said. “It feels as though we’ve largely given up on controlling the epidemic and have resigned ourselves to living alongside it.”

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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